Michael Jackson: The Immortal
Cirque Du Soleil
Review: David Zampatti
Of the 19 Cirque Du Soleil productions playing around the world, nine are permanently in Las Vegas; the Canadian troupe has hit treacherous paydirt in the Nevada desert.
It's hard to know whether its shows ever really "say" anything, but this one, a shameless, thematically shambolic tribute to the late King of Pop Michael Jackson says a lot about both its production values (very high), and its artistic sensibility (not so much).
Michael Jackson: The Immortal is one of the highest grossing arena acts in the world (we'll be seeing another, Bruce Springsteen, early in 2014). I'm guessing that most of its audience is coming for the singer rather than the circus, and what they're getting is essentially a whiz-bang cover band and some dancers recreating famous video clips with some acrobatics thrown in for good luck.
Mind you, the 11-piece band (five of whom played on Jackson's touring shows) certainly knows its licks, and provides some visual as well as musical highlights. Expect to see guitarist Desiree Bassett some time soon as Ace Frehley in an all-girl Kiss tribute show, while cellist Mariko might well end up on your auto-mechanic's wall if Pirelli ever bring out a calendar featuring musicians and their instruments.
Circus is kept to the bare minimum allowable under trade practices regulations banning misleading advertising. The Mongolian contortionist Baaska Enkhbaatar's lizard dance in Scary Story is extraordinary, but the other featured performances, Anna Melnikova's pole dance and Giulia Piolanti's silks, are more nightclub acts than circus.
Things start getting strange when you realise the excellent singers, Fred White and Stevvi Alexander, are only providing back up to pre-recorded (obviously enough) Michael Jackson lead vocals.
Stranger still is the Neverland setting for the show, and the visuals for songs like Childhood. One image, of a smiling Jackson with his arms over the shoulders of a young boy made me, and others nearby, gasp. It's not for anyone to sit in judgment of the more problematic side of the Jackson legacy, but there is insensitivity in some of the show's material that was very difficult to take.
Indeed, its whole hagiographical slant made me squirm. At one point, a huge image of Jackson, arms outstretched and haloed, floats above the audience. However he died, and why, it was surely not for their sins.
Jackson was neither a philosopher nor a poet - there are some particularly mawkish examples of his verse in the show. Like all great pop artists, he was deeper and more profound when he wasn't trying to be, as pulsating songs like Can You Feel It and Black and White demonstrate. They are among the show's best, as are a celestial Human Nature and an electric Billie Jean, both using LED technology to otherworldly effect.
The staging of some of Jackson's other hits is less effective; in particular, Thriller and Beat It lack the propulsive energy and tightness of the original choreography, and seem strangely under-resourced in such a huge show.
Above all, I wonder what Immortal says about where Cirque Du Soleil is now. A highlight of this year's Perth International Arts Festival (for me at least) was The Team's musical play Mission Drift, a parable of the loss of purpose and meaning set in Las Vegas. There's no doubt Cirque Du Soleil has changed Vegas, but it's unsettling to see how much Vegas has changed Cirque Du Soleil.
Michael Jackson: The Immortal ends Sunday.