Arts News

‘MJ’: A day in the life of Michael Jackson. And a few select days before.

And an essential play by the founder of the Trevor Project.

I’m starting with the man in the mirror / I’m asking him to change his ways / If you wanna make the world a better place / Take a look at yourself and then make a change

Michael Jackson left an indelible legacy. As a musician: a tremendous legacy, with estimated sales of over 400 million records worldwide and as the first artist to have Top 10 singles in five different decades on the Billboard Hot 100. As a man: a complicated legacy.

Stepping aside from his widely revealed peculiarities (remember “Wacko Jacko”?), there are undeniable facts of child molestations. A staggering $25 million was paid to settle one civil suit.

I wish I didn’t feel compelled to begin my review this way. That being said, here’s a review of the big Broadway bio — a partial bio — of his life.

The show is dazzling. MJ The Musical succeeds in revealing the genius of the singer, songwriter, dancemaker, and video innovator. It’s a thriller of a tribute to Michael’s music.

Roman Banks is captivating as the superstar. Well beyond feeling comfortable taking on the role of an icon, he embodies Michael. Without mimicry, Banks nails the famous fluttery, falsetto whisper. And winningly re-creates all the sizzling dancing. His execution of “Beat It” and “Don’t Stop’ Til You Get Enough” is flawless. “She’s Out of My Life” becomes tender monologue.

In MJ, the superstar tactfully avoids questions from an
MTV writer (Mary Kate Moore), unless the questions
concern his music. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Banks was the first POC actor to take on the lead role in Dear Evan Hansen, and it’s refreshing that he has the acting ability to pull you into the character, as opposed to weak impersonators. (I’m referencing you, Elvis stand-ins hired for birthday parties.)

Christopher Wheeldon, the British dance luminary, directs and choreographs masterfully. The internationally renown Wheeldon was a New York City Ballet resident choreographer and the company’s first resident artist.

His Tony win for the MJ choreography was his second, after his brightly polished work in An American in Paris, which he also directed. Wheeldon knows deeply the required movement vocabulary that has balletic grace mixed the high-energy, technical mechanized style of movement that has become so instantly recognizable.

Two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage (Sweat, Ruined, Intimate Apparel) wrote the scattered book for MJ, which was a surprise nomination among the 10 the musical received.

She sets the show in a nondescript studio where Jackson and his dancers are frenziedly rehearsing just days away from premiering the “Dangerous” tour in 1992. It’s a precise timeframe selection. During the second leg of tour, allegations of child molestations broke and received worldwide media attention. Jackson then canceled the remainder of the tour.

Nottage gives the background to Michael’s rise to fame through flashbacks but doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know. Remove the music and dancing, and the show is hollow. To fill time, Nottage adds scenes of his inspirations: the dancing of Bob Fosse, the Isley Brothers, and Fred Astaire, and influences from Barry Gordy and James Brown.

Like nearly all jukebox musicals (which I abhor), hits are quizzically shoehorned where they clearly don’t belong, including “I’m Bad” (he doesn’t believe so) and “I Want You Back” (who?). “I’ll Be There” is sung to Michael by his mother, who often was not there to protect him from her husband’s ferocious mistreatment that became abusive. Adding to the frustration of this slipshod tactic, the songs are playbill-listed alphabetical not chronologically.

One reason MJ soft-pedals Michael’s image is that the Jackson family was involved in creating the musical. Look carefully at the title page fine print and you’ll see the notation: “By special arrangement with the estate of Michael Jackson.”

Michael repeats more than once, “It’s all about the music,” and explains the only interview topic he’s open to discuss with an MTC reporter. “Is it possible to separate your life from your work?” is a piercing question.

MJ is first and foremost for fans who want to bask in the glory of a favorite performer, admiring all about the music — and separating the work from the life. With no revealing look at the man in the mirror.

NEXT ECCLES SEASON Six weeks of Wicked. Standard-length runs of the recent Broadway shows Life of Pi, & Juliet, the Tony-winning best musical Kimberly Akimbo (which I adore), and the rejiggered Hello, Dolly! If you believe, wherever you are, clap your hands, and Tinkerbell will hear you in Peter Pan (also adored). And “hasa diga eebowai!”: (the universally adored) The Book of Mormon.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey

Leonard Pelkey was a warm, funny, wildly creative, free-spirited 14-year-old. To express his individuality, he crafted his own platform sneakers, gluing a rainbow array of flip-flop soles to the bottom of Converse Chuck Taylors. Leonard believed that people were connected by rays of light and that the clearer the love, the more intense the light.

And he was killed for being gay.

There’s an illuminating lesson in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, and Leonard shines brightly.

Alvaro Cortez as one of nine characters he
portrays in The Absolute Brightness of
Leonard Pelkey. Photo: Kelly Branan

The 2015 play was written and originally performed by James Lecesne, who authored the screenplay for Trevor, a short film about a troubled youth that not only won a 1995 Academy Award but also launched a crisis intervention program for LGBTQ youth, The Trevor Project. His affinity for the subject matter shines through.

The fictional story is told through the perspective of Chuck DeSantis, a hard-boiled detective in a small “half-assed” South Jersey shore town tasked to find Leonard’s killer.

Alvaro Cortez plays DeSantis, the play’s narrator. And there are eight other characters in the play. But the 75 minutes of story-telling is done by the sole actor. He vividly portrays each of them, using little more than shifts in body language, vocal timbre, and accents.

There are no costume changes, no set changes, no props, no projections. There is solid direction by Patrick C. Kibbie, founder of the Voodoo Theatre Company. The bare set allows the script and the performance to be fully enjoyed.

Everyone — or nearly everyone — was touched by Leonard. He knew when someone’s lipstick was passé. He gave beauty tips and encouragement to women all over town. When people warned him to “tone it down,” he said that if he did, the terrorists would win.

In one way or another, they all admired his flamboyant artistic style and his insistence on being true to himself and proud of it. Even the tough boys who bullied him show some respect for his courage.

The message of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is important and relevant at a time when hate crimes still occur with frightening frequency.

March 8, 9, and 10 at the Utah Arts Alliance Theatre at Trolley Square, $20,

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