Front Row Reviewers

Feb 28, 2024 | Musical, Reviews, Theater Reviews, Utah

The King of Pop reigns supreme at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City with Broadway Across America’s MJ the Musical

Front Row Reviewers

Front Row Reviewers

By Alayna Een

The King of Pop reigns supreme at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City with Broadway Across America’s performance of MJ the Musical. The show is set in 1992 in a rehearsal studio in L.A. as Michael Jackson and his team prepare for the forthcoming Dangerous World Tour. As Michael’s creative vision for the iconic songs in his set expand and shift, the well-meaning producer, stressed financial manager, and tour director all struggle to find the balance between helping fulfill Michael’s vision and saving the tour from premature logistical and financial ruin. Adding to the confusion are MTV reporter Rachel and her cameraman, Alejandro, who come to create a documentary in hopes of mitigating a recent run of bad press for the pop star—but Rachel ends up discovering more than anyone was banking on. 

MJ the Musical is an intimate look at the music career of one of the biggest and most controversial figures in the history of modern music. Flashbacks to scenes from Michael’s young life are fluidly interspersed with the tour preparation and interviews with Rachel, giving context for Michael’s perfectionism, playfulness, and pain. This jukebox-style musical (book by Lynn Nottage) is filled with dozens of crowd-pleasing hit songs, but I love the added depth that MJ the Musical achieves by having the story be in true dialogue with the songs—rewarding the audience by adding layers of meaning to the familiar lyrics—rather than being just a framework to plug chart-toppers into. “Price of Fame” begins the story and weaves in and out in poignant moments throughout the play, and by the time the concluding song “Man in the Mirror” comes, you see something new in the well-known reflection. 

I was deeply impressed with the talent of the cast. The tireless tour dancers make each group number spectacular but also bring humanity to the rehearsal scenes. The brothers for the Jackson 5 (Josh A. Dawson, Malcolm Miles Young, Jay Mckenzie, Jacobi Kai, Brion Marquis Watson, Bryce A. Holmes) bring the crowd-favorite “ABC” and “I Want You Back” to life in roaring color—with a bell-bottom flare—but retreat into themselves in the tense family scenes, increasing the sense of unease. The MTV crew pushes the story to confront difficult truths and Rachel (Mary Kate Moore) beautifully introduces “Human Nature” and one of the most compelling conversations of the show. The host of tour staff and financial advisors walk the thin line between frustration and concern in ways that emphasize the humanity of everyone in the scene. 

A unique feature of the cast is that there are multiple actors playing a single character (multiple Michaels) as well as single actors playing multiple characters—sometimes switching between them in a single moment. While some of these transitions were aided by a small costume adjustment or a well-timed change in lighting (designed by Natasha Katz), many relied on only the actor to provide the distinction. This is most compelling in the performances of Devin Bowles (Rob, Joseph Jackson) and Anastasia Talley (Kate, Katherine Jackson). Bowles moves from monster-father to tour teddy bear in a moment with phenomenal precision, a credit to director Christopher Wheeldon

While all of these roles come together to create a great cast, the absolute stars of the show are the Michaels (MJ: Roman Banks, u/s Jamaal Fields-Green; Michael: Brandon Lee Harris; Little Michael: Josiah Benson, Bane Griffith). Benson strongly carries the demanding vocals and shows the pain and innocence of youth in his interactions with Bowles. Harris has the Herculean task of covering Michael’s musical journey from the Jackson 5 to a solo singer and from Motown through evolutions of pop. He expertly and incrementally introduces the singing style of the Michael Jackson we know, which is especially present in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” And finally, Banks brings the character of MJ into full and stunning color. I didn’t realize how well I knew MJ—the voice, the mannerisms, the movements—until the moment Banks walked onto the stage. He is a near-perfect copy of the King of Pop, from the moonwalk to the way he talks. Every musical moment is a powerful and precise tribute and his music and energy are unparalleled. His performance of “Billie Jean” might be the strongest second act starting number that I’ve ever seen. He glides across the stage with incredible smoothness that contrasts with the sharp dancing movements that are iconically Michael’s. These moves combine with the powerful dancing brought by the rest of the cast to make truly memorable group numbers, a credit to choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. 

I would be truly remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible costumes (Paul Tazewell) and electrifying scene design (Derek McLane), which showcase amazing variety and combine to create the tone shifts between songs—fanciful, futuristic, familial, flamboyant, and far more. With numbers that range from soulful to show-stopping, frightening to enlightening, MJ the Musical is a visual and musical feast with an ultimately positive message that audiences of all ages can enjoy together (recommended for children 8+). The show works equally well as a review for old fans and an introduction to those less familiar with the music (outside the cult classic “Thriller”) and the man. I was in middle school when Michael Jackson died, and I distinctly remember seeing the news stories. I remember how the echo of rumors and accusations that had been attached to him—each stranger and darker than the last—was suddenly cut short at his death as the focus shifted to his musical accomplishments. MJ the Musical strikes this balance well, keeping the focus on Michael’s musical legacy and acknowledging the old wounds from different perspectives without picking at the scabs. I left the theater dazzled by the musical numbers and with greater empathy for MJ and other stars who live so much of their lives under constant scrutiny.

So treat yourself to a mesmerizing and meaningful night at the theater and moonwalk your way to the Eccles theater or another stop on the national tour to see MJ the Musical!

A review by Front Row Reviewers
Zions Bank/Broadway at the Eccles Presents: MJ the Musical by Lynn Nottage.
The George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater, 131 Main St, Salt Lake City, UT 84111
February 27 to March 3, 2024, times vary
Tickets: $79–$179  
Contact: 801-355-2787 (ARTS)
Broadway at the Eccles Facebook Page

Front Row Reviewers

Front Row Reviewers


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