Even if you’re a die-hard Michael Jackson fan – the kind that’s owned five copies of Thriller to replace worn-out ones or collect the bonus material on every repackaging – it can sometimes be easy to forget, even if just for a second, what it means to recognize the artistry of Jackson as a composer, arranger, singer, dancer and all-around showman par excellence of the 20th century. Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, which played Newark, NJ’s Prudential Center on Saturday, was a reminder of those qualities, and one that managed to touch all the familiar tropes of Jackson’s career in unusual, sometimes surprising ways.
As big a star as Jackson was in life, the idea of a Cirque du Soleil show is, at first blush, a little unusual. The arresting visual styles of the Gary, Indiana-born entertainer and the Montreal-based theatrical exhibitors aren’t exactly made for each other. Stick too close to one side and you’d be stuck with either dancers and acrobats twisting in front of Michael’s videos on a screen, or an avant-garde presentation bearing little resemblance to that style that everyone copped in the golden age of MTV. Even the audiences are different: people didn’t “ooh” and “ahh” for Jackson the way they would at a Cirque du Soleil presentation – they would shriek and cry and faint as though Elvis and The Beatles were actually the apostles.
Fortunately, while the rock concert vibe was somewhat missing from the stands, The Immortal World Tour‘s creative team meshed both styles together rather well. Much of the original choreography on tracks like “Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Thriller” and The Jackson 5’s numbers remains intact onstage, but with flourishes that are uniquely Cirque du Soleil. Dance troupes moonwalk and spin, illuminated by only fiber optics in their costumes. Sparks shoot out of anti-gravity-leaning gangsters on “Smooth Criminal,” before a white-suited gunman strips off her suit and does a sensuous pole dance to “Dangerous.” Armies straight out of the This is It tour stomp to “They Don’t Care About Us.”
Even if it’s been done better by other Cirque shows, the multimedia execution stops things from getting too familiar. The soundtrack, which I’ve praised in the past, is augmented by a live band anchored by Jackson collaborator/legendary session keyboardist Greg Phillinganes and Jackson’s touring drummer, Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett. So while Jackson’s voice remains the same, you’re not just hearing what you paid $16 to hear on CD back in March. And while Cirque’s Love program, featuring The Beatles, is still the most innovative pop/rock production the group has ever devised, the extended breakdowns and alternate mixes of familiar MJ hits do a fine job of staving off feelings of deja vu.
The visual flair of the show also deserves high praise; like the soundtrack, whoever selected the clips to use was happy to dig deep. Jackson’s rarely seen videos are given plenty of face time alongside the classics (whoever thought they’d come away from a Cirque du Soleil show having seen the prison version of the “They Don’t Care About Us” video?), and there are callbacks to everything that played a visual part in Michael’s career, from the ridiculous Jackson 5ive cartoon to the footage shot for the This is It tour. (Really, the only video out of play was Captain EO – and I’ll leave it to you to determine just how much it was really missing.)
The Immortal World Tour is a great show, even if it didn’t elicit the kind of reaction from the crowd I was hoping. I’m not saying I expected the crowd to engage in Bad Tour-level hysterics, but the audience rarely leapt to its feet as you would a straightforward concert. That said, toward the second act (after the audience knew what to expect) there were some magical moments from the crowd, particularly the humorous sounds of an audience joining Michael’s voice in the “Ow!”s on “Black or White.”
If you’re new to the Cirque du Soleil brand of entertainment, or need a strong reminder of what made this Michael Jackson guy a continued touchstone of entertainment for so many of us, you might want to make the trip to see Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour when it plays your town. Call it a cliche, but the collaboration between these two forces of entertainment is…a thriller.