By Jason Menard
There is a major challenge for anyone considering putting together a show based on the work of Michael Jackson — and that is not to be overwhelmed by the subject matter itself. That could have been the problem with the Cirque de Soleil presentation entitled Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour.
The solution? Simply do what you do best — and for Cirque de Soleil that’s paint a tapestry of images, movement, and physicality that combines the best of athleticism and art.
Cirque de Soleil is an iconic troupe which has its origins on the streets of Montreal. Now it has grown into a position of global dominance in the field of entertainment. Forget what you know about circuses — Cirque take convention and throws it out the window.
But there are stars, there are icons, and then there’s MJ. He was the perfect artist born at the perfect time. Others may have equalled his talent in terms of music, dance, and showmanship, but none are able to match him in all three. He didn’t just benefit from the rise of music videos and multi-media — he redefined it and set a standard that is still the benchmark for the artists that have come after him.
So it was with suitably lofty expectations that my wife and I attended the opening-night performance of the Immortal World Tour show at the John Labatt Centre in London, ON. And from the moment that the lights dimmed to the denouement that was a well-deserved standing ovation, Cirque proved it could suitably honour Jackson’s legacy whilst adding to its own.
How does one build a show based upon the legacy of excellence that Michael left behind without losing itself in the process? By incorporating the naturally theatrical nature of Jackson’s work and combining it with the awe-inspiring elements that Cirque is known for.
The show opens with a massive stage featuring the gates of Neverland. Behind these gates lie an impressive band, back-up singers, and three massive 30-foot screens. Leading out from the gate, there’s a long stage addition, which culminates in a second circular stage in the middle of the crowd. And there is where we find our first members of the cast — a group of five Cirque clowns dressed in clothing representative of Michael’s various styles.
And, yes, the first crotch grab does appear but two minutes into the show.
The early plot involves these five fans trying to broach the Neverland gates. Through their early exploits we’re taken through Jackson’s early years — starting with Working Day and Night. And the assault on the senses begins early. The massive screen is alternately a brick wall that the clowns scale, mock-painting it with various images, and then a moving roadway upon which the clowns run and dance in mid-air. The segment ends with a graffitied “I love MJ” emblazoned on the screen, which prompts the first mass cheer from the crowd.
We’re then introduced to a metaphoric glitter glove who will carry us throughout the show. The actor, dressed in white and glitter, speaks very little (which isn’t all bad as he’s eerily reminiscent of Pingu when he speaks). A rapid-fire retrospective of Jackson’s video work plays on the screen (which a cameo by Dick Clark), which then segues into the first major production — the glitter glove man dancing with a group of children’s statues, which leads to an animatronic young Michael soaring above the fans in a hot-air balloon as the song Childhood concludes.
Fans of Michael won’t be disappointed as all the hits are represented: from Wanna Be Starting Something, Billie Jean, and other selections from Thriller, to his work in The Wiz; from Off the Wall to his final solo efforts; and a liberal helping of The Jackson Five. And what would any MJ show be without an appearance by Bubbles, who at one point was “Blaming it on the Boogie” with Glitter Glove Man.
Each segment was visually stunning, albeit some of the images didn’t quite mesh perfectly. For example, the song Ben (which is about a rat) was accompanied by a spectacular Asian-inspired production featuring elephants.
Musically, the lead guitarist was incredible and a woman I have chosen to refer to as Xena – Warrior Cellist amazed with a modern take on a classical instrument. Not surprisingly, the largest cheers went to performances of Thriller and Smooth Criminal, which featured a spectacular interpretation of the famous “lean”.
And while Jackson’s music drove the show, the Cirque certainly didn’t take a back seat in this production. The performers were undeniably up to the challenge of bringing Michael’s music to life. The clowns and Glitter Glove Man were steady, but the standouts had to be a petite red-headed gymnast who slithered and writhed about a massive pole in a way that would make the most accomplished adult dancer jealous (and the more faint-of-heart viewers blush). She easily received the largest and longest ovation from the crowd at the end.
She was joined by another young woman who was the focal point of the back-from-intermission segment. Wearing a sheer white body suit and accompanied by an equally impressive male partner, they performed incredible feats of athleticism using only a large rope and physical strength as four pairs of gymnasts framed their exploits around the centre of the stage.
The show ended with a moving performance that saw the troupe start amongst the crowd carrying illuminated hearts. The crowd clapped and swayed in unison as the show reached its crescendo and, following a video montage ending with young Michael, the performers came out for well-deserved recognition.
If there’s a fault to the show, it lies with the viewers’ physical limitations. At various segments there are four or five points of interest to which it’s absolutely impossible to pay proper attention. You’re torn whether to watch the images displayed on the massive screens, the drama playing out on the main stage, or the movement in the centre circle. But if having too much to choose from is your only complaint, then it’s a show well worth seeing — and seeing again.
Finally, despite their best efforts, the dancing simply can’t equal what Michael was able to do, seemingly effortlessly. That’s not a criticism of the performers, but rather a lament to the incredible talent that was lost with Michael’s passing. No matter how anyone tries, few can Moonwalk like Jackson.
That, in part, is why his legacy lives on. And Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour is a fitting tribute to the man, the music, and the movement by the only people capable of doing justice to his performing legacy — Cirque de Soleil.