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Concert Reviews:
MIchael Jackson lives again at Joe Louis Arena

for Journal Register Newspapers

Posted: Sunday, October 16, 2011

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DETROIT -- On paper, the late Michael Jackson and Cirque du Soleil are a match made in theatrical heaven.

Both of their performance histories are marked by spectacle, opulence and overkill, grandeur and audaciousness. They share a knack for pushing the proverbial envelope, taking risks and seeking to one-up themselves -- and everybody else.

So 27 months after Jackson's death, Cirque du Soleil paying tribute via "Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour" makes perfect sense. The result, as seen Saturday night (Oct. 15) at Joe Louis Arena was not a slam-dunk success, but there was enough intermittent brilliance to be more of a "Thriller" than a flop.

The 100-minute show (plus 20-minute intermission) blended all of the inventive physicality and colorful trappings associated with Cirque du Soleil with Jackson's music, imagery and iconic presence. Designed as a trip into Neverland, the perpetually childlike Jackson's own particular Magical Kingdom, the Immortal show treated the onetime Motown star as a prodigy and philanthropist, a lover of nature and a humanitarian out to "Heal the World." There was nary a reference to the darker side of Jackson's story -- the troubled childhood, the turbulent family dynamics, the accusations of child molestation. Nor was any of that expected.

Instead it was a celebration built on song, dance and visual pizzazz, with a live band comprised of several Jackson tour alumni -- directed by keyboardist and Detroit native Greg Phillinganes -- pumping along to Jackson's recorded vocals and a company of dancers, aerialists and contortionists presenting impressionistic interpretations of songs from throughout Jackson's career while a mime (Salah Benhlemqawanssa) representing Jackson's gentle spirit guided the audience through the show. Bubbles the chimp was there, too, loping around the stage during several of the numbers.

Some of the intricately choreographed set pieces worked particularly well. "Dancing Machine" was performed to an industrial thump for staging that looked like an outtake reel from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." A crisp energy drove the coupling of "This Place Hotel" and "Smooth Criminal," the latter of which aped Jackson's long-form video for the song. "Thriller" was performed on a cemetery tableau, re-creating the choreography from that song's video, "Scream" was a gymnastic odyssey, and "They Don't Care About Us" was delivered by the same robotic troupe Jackson had planned for the scuttled This Is It show in 2009.

The too-short "Beat It" found cast members manipulating a giant jeweled glove and a similarly oversized penny loafers, while a crew of Fanatics seeking to get into Neverland performed high-spirited skits to "Working Day and Night," "Shake Your Body Down to the Ground" and a medley of Jackson 5 Motown hits. And the "Megamix" of favorites such as "Can You Feel It," "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough," "Billie Jean" and "Black Or White" was a joyous finale that spotlighted the entire cast.

If Immortal lacked anything it was a sense of flow and thematic continuity. Direct plot is not Cirque du Soleil's bailiwick, of course, but in trying to say everything about Jackson, Immortal came up a bit muddled in the narrative department. The staging, meanwhile, is still a work in progress; the Giving Tree that was part of earlier shows on the tour has been trimmed to a center-stage stump, which on Saturday was little more than an obtrusive, inconsequential prop.

And the 12-piece band seemed a bit under-used, especially given the caliber of the players involved. The group was integrated so smoothly into the mix that the music could just as easily been recorded, and save for a couple of numbers that spotlighted percussionist Taku Hirano and brief solos by guitarists Jon Myron Clark and Desiree Basett and cellist Tina Guo, the show cried for a moment or two where the whole ensemble could cut loose and make a bit of magic on its own.

With Jackson not around, however, the Immortal World Tour is his stand-in, a creditable representation of all that made him a pop culture icon. And in doing so it's more than merely an incredible simulation, but not nearly a substitute for the real thing.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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