Michael Jackson’s Thriller album was released in 1982, when I was sixteen years old. I suppose that’s why it made such an impact on me. I was of that age when music is how teenagers express themselves. I was a nerdy teenager though. As much as I loved the music and the music videos it generated, I also got a big kick out of the Vincent Price voiceover for the song Thriller. (I liked old movies. I’d seen House of Wax.)
Sometime in the ensuing years after the initial thrill (pardon the pun) of the album wore off, to be replaced by other albums, other interests, I distanced myself from Michael Jackson’s music. There was so much negative gossip about him all the time, and I found it very hard to divorce my feelings about the “brilliant music artist Michael Jackson” from the “scandalous Michael Jackson” being trotted out in the tabloid headlines all the time. I didn’t know what was true and what wasn’t, all I knew was that the constant melodrama swirling around him was tiresome. (I can only imagine how tiresome it was for him.)
By the time of his death, I hadn’t followed his music in many, many years. This became apparent when I saw the new Cirque du Soleil show, Michael Jackson ONE. Sure, I recognized the hits I’d grown up with, but there were many songs I had never heard before. I had no idea some of his songs had such a political activist bent (They Don’t Care About Us, Earth Song), and I would have enjoyed them when they first came out had I known. That’s one of the things I liked most about this show: It reintroduced me to the Michael Jackson I once admired and also showed me a side of him I hadn’t known before. It filled in the gaps.
The plot—yes, there is one–revolves around four nerdy teenagers (Clumsy, Shy, Smarty Pants, and Sneaky) who get their hands on some Michael Jackson memorabilia—his sunglasses, his hat, his shoes, his gloves–which become endowed with a magical power to transform each teen, giving them some of Michael’s signature dance moves (moonwalking, the lean) and perhaps a bit of his spirit, too. Do yourself a favor before seeing the show and read this outline of the acts and characters. The show makes sense without knowing these things, but having the information ahead of time definitely adds more layers to it. If nothing else, it helps to know the characters’ names.
Michael Jackson ONE is not like any of the other Cirque du Soleil shows that I’ve seen, yet it certainly has the Cirque stamp on it. There is more emphasis on dancing (really spectacular dancing) and music in this show than there normally is—yet there is still enough acrobatics to keep Cirque fans happy. There’s even a very good KA-like battle sequence between Shy and the nemesis of the piece.
The star of the show is Michael Jackson, of course. You might wonder how it’s even possible for someone to permeate a show four years after he died. You’d be surprised, as I was. They’ve done a fantastic job of including Michael in every aspect of the show—not just his music, his trademark clothing, his signature dance moves, but also in multimedia—audio and video clips of Michael speaking, singing, dancing. His image and voice are in front of you, in your ears, and all around you in the theater much of the time. You feel his spirit throughout the show.
My favorite numbers, unsurprisingly, usually coincided with my favorite Michael Jackson songs: Beat It is the perfect, upbeat song to open with, it really put the audience in the right mood. Billie Jean features dancers wearing LED costumes on a darkened stage—a visual effect that was breathtaking. Bad was a fun number, with a double slackline routine and dancers dressed as ’80s street kids. Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ showcased the coolest hat-juggling sequence EVER. Smooth Criminal featured great integration of Michael on video, and dancers performing “the Lean”, which the audience went crazy for.
Thriller featured the uber-cool Vincent Price voiceover, as well as “the Undead” dancing down the aisles and descending from the ceiling. It made me feel like I was inside the Thriller music video itself. It was pretty damn cool. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better than that, Man in the Mirror completely blew me away. I won’t tell you how; I don’t want to spoil it. But it was major.
Simply put, this is the best new show on the Strip. If you’ve ever loved Michael Jackson’s music—even if you have conflicted feelings about the man himself—you should see this show. Why is it so great? The whole package: The music, the dancing, the acrobatics, the multimedia aspect of the show–there’s so much going on during every minute of the show, it takes a few minutes for your senses to adjust (even in a city of sensory overload like Las Vegas!).
Glitz is all fine and well, but there’s a lot of heart in this show, too.I find that the older I get, the more that matters to me. I definitely got teary-eyed during some acts, particularly those featuring Michael singing as a little boy. The overall message of the show came through loud and clear: We should always be striving to be better and to make the world a better place.
Even though I was never tempted to see him in concert when he was alive, now, after seeing Michael Jackson ONE, I wish I had. I found myself finally—finally–being able to separate my feelings about his troubled personal life with the musical genius that he was. Now I can listen to his music again and truly enjoy it on its own terms.
Preview the show:
Postscript: A Cautionary Tale
When shows like this say “no photography,” they mean it. Two women in the row behind me were “escorted” out of the show by a security guard about a third of the way into the show for taking photos. If they paid as much for their tickets as I did mine, that was $240 (combined) they might as well have lit on fire.
I know that people always try to push the envelope on these things because they think the rules are about greed or control of images. But in this case, they’re not. The rules are for the safety of the performers.
The theater is often quite dark, yet the performers are still in motion, both on-stage and above you, suspended from wires. Can you imagine trying to perform the feats they do, while avoiding obstacles (including each other), in the pitch dark? One small distraction could lead to a mistake which could lead to a performer being injured or worse.
So keep the cell phones and cameras turned off. Be present in the moment and just enjoy the show.
Photo credit: All images used in this post courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.