Lyric Theatre, London W1
Opened 21 January, 2009

Overheard in the artificially engineered throng to get into this Michael Jackson tribute show: “It’s like Obama’s inauguration!” – “Yeah, except Obama’s black.” I’m not a great fan of compilation musicals, but I can see the attraction if a show has an original narrative… or a biographical one, or frankly any narrative. Thriller – Live doesn’t. It has a handful of spoken links, hagiologising Jackson as “truly the undisputed king of rock, pop and soul” (well, by the same metric that makes McDonald’s the undisputed kings of cuisine, yes), but the rest is just a succession of musical numbers in chronological order from the early days of the Jackson 5. It cheats, of course, avoiding a massive anticlimax by offering only two songs from Dangerous, none from Invincible and holding back the biggest of the biggies from the Thriller and Bad albums for pseudo-encores.
So it’s a series of impersonations of Jackson? Er, no. The performers are costumed, but since the pool of lead vocalists includes Denise Pearson (formerly of clean-cut 1980s family soul-pop combo 5 Star) in a spangly dress and the noticeably white Ben Foster, then (vitiligo gags aside) it’s fair to say that verisimilitude isn’t crucial in that respect at least. However, John Maher’s band are adept at reproducing the recorded sound, and the vocalists’ phrasing is usually faithful to every little gasp and tic that was once spontaneous. The staging of each number is close enough to the video that you start replaying it in your head, but not quite close enough to generate a storm of plagiarism suits. And it’s all desperately unexciting. Even in a partisan opening-night crowd, I never counted more than four or five heads nodding along to the music among the 350-400 I could see.
Don’t blame it on the sunshine, the moonlight, the good times nor even on the boogie: blame it on Adrian Grant, a professional Jackson idolater who is responsible for “original concept” and is co-producer and “executive director” of this production, as well as writing all four programme essays. Seguéing from a video montage of Jackson’s changing face into one of Geldof, Bono and then Mandela and (yes) Obama is simply obscene in the extravagance of its implicit claims. During the rendition of “Earth Song”, I remembered the notoriously sabotaged rendition at the 1996 Brit Awards and realised: what this show really needs is Jarvis Cocker’s irreverently waggling arse.

[Footnote: OK, the Obama punchline was actually mine.]

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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