MJ The Musical review – Christopher Wheeldon has created something extraordinary

Sarah Kirkup
Thursday, March 28, 2024

Myles Frost channels Christopher Wheeldon’s mesmerising choreography to brilliant effect

Myles Frost as MJ (photo: Johan Persson)
Myles Frost as MJ (photo: Johan Persson)

With MJ The Musical, Christopher Wheeldon has created something extraordinary. The British, New York-based choreographer takes Michael Jackson’s signature moves – crotch grabs and thrusts, locking, popping, high kicks, fast spins, the robot, the moonwalk – and infuses them with his own vocabulary. Far more than pastiche, the resulting choreography (with contributions by Rich + Tone Talauega, who worked with Jackson in the mid-‘90s) is a nostalgic yet thrilling feast for the eyes, executed with utter brilliance by a committed, high-energy company of dancers.

At the helm is Myles Frost, originator of the role on Broadway, for whom this movement is as natural as breathing. With the simple addition of a jacket, or a hat, or a bejewelled glove, we see MJ – an exacting introvert offstage, with an almost childlike view of the world – morph into a magnetic performer who commands the stage. And he can sing, too, nailing that distinctive quiver in the long notes, reaching the falsetto range with ease, and belting when required.

At the helm is Myles Frost, originator of the role on Broadway, for whom this movement is as natural as breathing. With the simple addition of a jacket, or a hat, we see MJ morph into a magnetic performer

It's a tour de force for Frost, and would surely prove an impossible feat were it not for the support of the two younger Michaels, particularly Mitchell Zhangazha as the middle Michael, whose scene with producer Quincy Jones where we see him creating and then performing ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ is a brilliant showcase of Zhangazha’s beatboxing and vocal talents.

For this ‘MTV documentary-within-a-show’, a selection of the superb band are onstage throughout (alongside some superlative backing singers – Phebe Edwards, who also plays Katherine Jackson, Michael’s mother, is heaven-sent), riffing with MJ and his dancers as they rehearse for the upcoming Dangerous World Tour, increasing the tempo at his command, and stepping into the spotlight when required (guitarist Frankie South in ‘Beat It’ is sensational). The wind and brass section are positioned out of sight, but the sound remains superb – and what a joy to hear songs we know and love being given a new depth and dimension thanks to new orchestrations and arrangements by David Holcenberg and Jason Michael Webb.

The set pieces, such as ‘Thriller’, where all the creative elements – Derek McLane’s set, Natasha Katz’s lighting, Paul Tazewell’s costumes, and Peter Nigrini’s projections – converge with Wheeldon’s convulsing choreography to dizzying effect, are the obvious crowd-pleasers. But a hushed, sultry sequence in which Wheeldon acknowledges Jackson’s debt to Bob Fosse – all tilted hats, hip rolls, finger snaps and undulating hands – is the standout here. And when this segues into a pulsating ‘Smooth Criminal’, the juxtaposition is spine-tingling.

In today’s cancel-culture climate, it’s a wonder that MJ The Musical was ever given the green light. There will be those who continue to believe it shouldn’t have been. Similarly, there will be audience-goers who choose to stay away. But Lynn Nottage’s book reminds us that, away from the glare of the follow spots, Jackson was tormented by an abusive, bullying father, whose quest for perfection left a permanent mark on his son; whose insistence that each performance should be bigger and better than the last resulted in an addiction to painkillers, extreme exhaustion and unrealistic expectations of those around him – and of himself. When MJ describes the experience of being onstage as ‘like receiving the holy spirit in church’ we get a glimpse of just how delusional he has become; likewise, when he admits that the risk of hurting himself physically onstage is far less terrifying to him than ‘losing the audience’s interest’.

While MJ The Musical immortalises Michael Jackson’s legacy as a musician and performer, it also reminds us that genius comes at a price. Will this be enough to convince those who believe the artist and his art cannot and should not be separated? Perhaps not. So here’s another question: Should the world be denied the chance to see Myles Frost give the performance of his life, night after night? Surely not.

Production credits

MJ The Musical

Prince Edward Theatre, 27 March 2024

Starring: Myles Frost, Ashley Zhangazha, Mitchell Zhangazha, Philippa Stefani, Phebe Edwards, Matt Mills, Rohan Pinnock-Hamilton, Matt Gonsalves, Jon Tsouras et al

MJ The Musical is booking until 10 December 2024 – for more information and tickets, visit london.mjthemusical.com

Read our two-page review by Sarah Crompton in the June/July issue of Musicals.