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Long live the king: Cirque du Soleil's tribute to Michael Jackson

Cirque du Soleil's Michael Jackson show is a sometimes superficial celebration of the life and music of the late performer, writes Madeline Gressel

 

WHAT IS MICHAEL Jackson’s legacy?

After such a long, prolific and controversial career, how should the superstar be remembered: a singer, a saint, or a misunderstood genius? Cirque du Soleil, the French-Canadian acrobatic theatre company, explores this question in a celebratory triple backflip down memory lane called Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour.

The showmelds dance, acrobatics and music into a circus-style rock concert. It’s not the first time the company has taken this approach to a musical legend: the tour follows in the footsteps of Love, which was based on songs by The Beatles.

Cirque de Soleil made a point of asking Jackson’s former colleagues to assist in the show’s creation, and many agreed to do so.

The Immortal is written and directed by Jamie King, a concert director for Jackson and Rihanna. The props are designed by Michael Curry, who worked with Jackson on the This Is It tour. Five members of the show’s live band have played and recorded with Jackson.

After two years touring North America and Europe, the show is heading to Asia.

The travelling production is one of Cirque du Soleil’s biggest. There are more than 50 performers, about 1,500 costume pieces, 38 trucks, and the many props include a human-sized, white dancing glove.

Several of the costumes contain thousands of tiny LED lights, individually maintained by Nate Mondell.

“I think it’s the largest touring costume show in the world,” says Liquorish Tanya, the head of wardrobe. “In most Cirque shows, the artists have two or three costumes; on this show they have eight to 12. They usually have four people working in the wardrobe; we have eight.”

Though it is by no means a chronological narrative of Jackson’s life, the show begins with Jackson’s childhood.

Like Virgil in Dante’s Divine Comedy, a mime artist, encrusted in Swarovski crystals, guides us through the gates of Neverland. On the way we are treated to pole dancing, a graveyard recreation from Thriller, ninja acrobatics, a serpentine contortionist, and an actor dressed as Jackson’s pet chimp, Bubbles.

“None of it is a biography,” insists creative director Neelanthi Vadivel. “That was never the intention. It’s a celebration of what he brought to the world and how he changed the music industry. Music around the world was changed by what [Jackson] gave us. That’s what the show is about. It’s not about his life.”

The narrative feels disjointed, but certain scenes are stunning. The aerial strap acrobatic performance by Luba Kazantseva and Brandon Pereyda to I Just Can’t Stop Loving You is astounding. When the acrobats are allowed to shine, the show becomes a celebration of the exacting, obsessive, almost superhuman performance ethic that drove Jackson.

The Immortal has been a resounding success. It has notched ticket sales of more than US$300 million and was the highest grossing tour in the US last year. In Japan, the entire six-week run was sold out.

The strongest moments are the dance numbers (such as Smooth Criminal and Billie Jean) in which the performers evoke Jackson at the height of his career — sexy, mysterious, acrobatic and charismatic. At times, video footage of Jackson dancing plays on an enormous screen, and it’s impossible to look away.

Despite the virtuosity of the performers, Jackson steals the show. This is the man who created a style that lives on in Justin Timberlake, Usher, Lady Gaga, and even Daft Punk.

The show sacrifices Jackson’s raw sexuality and virtuosity for the juvenile, saintly image that he sold later in life. He’s a lost boy, deprived of a childhood, working to make the world a purer place.

One sequence, set to They Don’t Care About Us, runs through a montage of news footage: Hitler, Tiananmen Square, and starving children with flies in their eyes.

The message here is clear: on the one hand, there’s everything bad that’s ever happened; on the other, there’s Michael.

The performers are fantastically skilled. But the show is more rock concert than circus, and often feels like a series of wasted opportunities to delve deeper into his art.

“Have you seen my childhood?” is its refrain. Well, that is on display for all to see. In light of Jackson’s controversial life, some will find this candied phantasmagoria a bit difficult to swallow.

But there’s no denying it’s a fun-filled family show. Jackson himself would have been delighted.

48hours@scmp.com

 

Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, August 23, 8pm; August 24 and 25, 4pm and 8pm; AsiaWorld-Expo, Lantau, HK$288- HK$1,288 HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 3128 8288

 

 

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