Cirque du Soleil brings smiles to Michael Jackson fans
On a beautiful spring evening, Cirque du Soleil’s highly anticipated “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour,” written and directed by Jamie King, finally rolled into Philadelphia, playing for two nights at the Wells Fargo Center.
The air was filled with excitement as we filed into the arena, but the show actually began in the parking lot, with MJ fans of all ages showing up in full regalia, sporting sequined gloves, sparkly socks, black fedoras and the quintessential red “pleather” “Thriller” jacket.
With Musical Director Greg Phillinganes and his talented ensemble of singers and musicians performing on a platform high above the stage, the show officially opened with “Working Day and Night,” as a group of dancers dressed in MJ gear showed off a variety of his oft-imitated dance moves, including his signature spins and of course, the Moonwalk.
From that moment on, it was an evening of scintillating sensory overload, led by a rhinestone-clad mime named Salah Benlemqawansa. Normally, I find mimes extremely annoying, but this guy was a skilled dancer who did a decent job of taking us on Jackson’s musical odyssey, beginning with the poignant “Childhood.” Clips of the King of Pop as a cherubic preteen performer were projected on several video screens which were used liberally throughout the show. There was also a brief Jackson Five medley that featured “I Want You Back,” “The Love You Save” and “Dancing Machine.”
The highly produced technological spectacle had something for everyone — acrobats, a contortionist, robots, fireworks, tap dancers, flags and even Jackson’s famous primate pal Bubbles (played by Terrence Harrison). You name it, they had it. One cast member who proved to be particularly popular was the beautiful and voluptuous Felix Cane, who proved her mettle as the “ultimate pole dancer” (my words, not theirs), while the men in the house drooled and the women took mental notes. I don’t think anyone remembers what song was playing during her act, but in my notepad I see that I scribbled “Dangerous.”
It was also impossible to ignore Jean Sok, the one-legged B-boy who has refined dancing with two crutches into an art, leaving the audience dazed and amazed.
The extensive playlist, delivered by Jackson with a bit of embellishment, also included imaginative renditions of “Smooth Criminal,” “Human Nature,” “Beat It,” “Jam,” “Earth Song,” “Scream,” “They Don’t Care About Us” and “Billie Jean.” As I watched the show, it became apparent that King expanded on Jackson’s vision for his production, “This Is It,” which he was preparing and rehearsing when he passed away suddenly on June 25, 2009. Having seen the film twice, many of the the routines in “Immortal” were very familiar to me.
While overall, the show was breathtaking, I was disappointed in their interpretation of “Thriller,” which was under-whelming. Most Jackson fans know every step of his beloved groundbreaking video, and the scene in “Immortal” “re-imagines” Tony Award winner Michael Peters’ choreography, severely diminishing the routine’s impact. Re-imagines? Why? It’s impossible to improve on perfection, so this was definitely a missed opportunity to take the production over the top. To be honest, for an MJ purist such as myself, the show was a bit too abstract in spots, focusing on production value rather than the man and his music, but then, this is Cirque du Soleil. Their take on things is just a bit off-center.
The entertaining and inspiring production came to an emotional finale with “Man in the Mirror,” bringing the entire cast on stage, and reiterating Jackson’s longing for world peace.
With all that being said, as someone who had the good fortune of seeing Michael Jackson in concert both as a precocious child star and in the prime of his prolific career, all of the fireworks, special effects, glitzy costumes, bungee cords, archival video and bombastic sound still don’t match the magic and the excitement of watching him performing live onstage — just Mike and the music. Even so, Cirque du Soleil’s “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour” though imperfect, is a noble and fitting homage to his memory.