It seems eerie yet fitting that the Los Angeles stop of Cirque du Soleil's MICHAEL JACKSON: THE IMMORTAL WORLD TOUR took place over the weekend at none other than the Staples Center in Los Angeles. It is, after all, the very same venue where Jackson held rehearsals for his planned 2009 World Tour "This Is It" before passing away rather suddenly in June of that year. Days later, the venue then also served as host to the pop star's public memorial service, where celebrities and family members shared loving anecdotes in front of Jackson's closed casket, as millions watched around the world on live television. So to see this extravagant, visually-arresting tribute to the King of Pop here makes absolute perfect sense. (And due to popular demand and brisk ticket sales for its three-show engagement this past weekend, the tour has added two additional shows at the Staples Center scheduled for August 14 and 15).
A mixture of hip-hop dancing, avant-garde vignettes, LED lights and pyrotechnics, concert-caliber Broadway set pieces, and plenty of Jackson's memorable hits (and even a few obscure late-career tunes), THE IMMORTAL World Tour serves as a high-octane yet still reverent tribute to the global superstar. On paper, it certainly sounds like a great idea: the show tries to blend the eye-popping visuals of Cirque du Soleil with the equally-spectacular imagery of Jackson's over-the-top concerts and music videos—the latter a musical genre off-shoot Jackson himself helped pioneer into the modern era. Much like the conceit of the Sinatra-flavored COME FLY AWAY, this show uses Jackson's actual vocals while backed by live musicians and terrific back-up singers.
With a Jackson-obsessed Mime as the show's "narrator" and guide, Jackson's entire timeline seems to be covered in its entirety here—from his early, afro-sporting days as the adorable lead singer of The Jackson 5, through his meteoric rise as a pop phenomenon, to his constant battles with media scrutiny as an adult man-child—all via a cast of limber dancers and acrobats that re-interpret Jackson's music within brand new environments such as an Amazon-like forest ("Wanna Be Starting Something") or an ironworks factory straight out of a Fritz Lang movie ("Dancing Machine"). More than anything, the show takes care to remind people of Jackson's indelible contributions to pop music as well as his concerns toward global crises and humanitarian causes.
Other notable highlights include the main cast (known as MJ "fanatics," natch) donning 70's garb while lip-syncing to a medley of retro Jackson 5 hits, a too-cool re-imagining of "Smooth Criminal," a weird but fascinating pole-dancing routine set to "Dangerous" (why not "Dirrrty Diana?"), the appropriately ethereal space vignette set to "Human Nature" (my personal favorite of MJ's songs) that casts contortionists as floating stars in the constellations, and, of course, an awesome full-scale reinvention of Jackson's biggest hit "Thriller" that rousingly closes the first act.
While deifying Jackson as if his spirit hovered over the arena and puppeteered the entire colorfully-costumed cast, the show also allows for giddy, tongue-in-cheek moments that highlight a few of Jackson's eccentricities (giant versions of his diamond-covered glove and his slip-on penny-loafers come to life... and, heck, even Bubbles the Chimp shows up as a recurring character). Ultimately, the show shifts most of the second act to be the kind of message-heavy extravaganza Jackson has been known to favor: marching foot soldiers in rat-tat-tat unison that morph into heart-tugging (literally) global ambassadors for world peace. (The resurrection of the "They Don't Care About Us" production number that starts the climax sequences in this show was originally intended for Jackson's "This Is It" concert tour—a number that would have surely made Jackson proud).
As an overall show, THE IMMORTAL is, without a doubt, a full-throttle spectacle worthy of the man it is trying to pay homage to, despite its rough construction. But be forewarned—those expecting the "Cirque" in Cirque du Soleil will be hard-pressed to find much of it here. Under the direction of star choreographer and music video wunderkind Jamie King, the show is more of a haphazardly-structured dance showcase set to the Jackson jukebox—a slight but noticeable departure from your typical big-top Cirque extravaganza.
Yes, there are plenty of gorgeous contortionists, acrobatic tumblers and aerial artists of the Cirque ilk here, but they are almost lost in the sea of sparkling lights, LED projections, and the crunk-and-circumstance of the show's army of hip-hop aficionados. Thankfully, the entire dance troupe is incredible in every way (one particular stand-out: one-legged dancer Jean Sok who flips like nobody's business!) When the fantastical Cirque moments do occur in their own spotlights—such as the gorgeous "Human Nature" space-scape, the freaky but fascinating contortionist that emerges from a gigantic storybook, and the aerial pas de deux of swans set to "I Just Can't Stop Loving You"—they are intensely moving.
But, as befitting a show about HIStory's King of Pop, this tribute focuses its energy in the dynamic juggernaut that is Jackson himself—the man, the music, the moves, and, most of all, the message—which explains why this Cirque show isn't very Cirque in the first place. Not surprisingly, by the time we reach the blockbuster ending, the show has erupted into a full-scale United Nations dance-a-thon block party that feels nothing short of a downscaled version of an Olympic Opening Ceremony. If only the world could get along this well. And even without the actual physical presence of Jackson himself, you'd think you were in the middle of an actual Jackson concert, judging from the fervent reaction of the sold-out opening night crowd. Controversy aside, Jackson's legacy truly lives on....sparkly single glove and all.
All Photos: OSA Images / ©2011 Cirque-Jackson I.P., LLC
Follow West Coast Editor Michael L. Quintos on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Due to overwhelming demand, Cirque du Soleil has announced that MICHAEL JACKSON: THE IMMORTAL WORLD TOUR will return to the Staples Center on August 14 and 15, 2012 for the two final US performances before the world tour continues abroad.
For additional information, remaining U.S. tour dates, or ticket ordering information, visit www.cirquedusoleil.com/MichaelJackson.