'Thriller Live'

"Thriller Live" cannot be faulted for lack of admiration of its subject. Over nearly three hours of often expertly executed song and dance, the production provides an exhaustive showcase for Michael Jackson's back catalog.

“Thriller Live” cannot be faulted for lack of admiration of its subject. Over nearly three hours of often expertly executed song and dance, the production provides an exhaustive showcase for Michael Jackson’s back catalog. Only a wisp of chronological narrative and its presence in a West End house link this outing to traditional theatrical fare; it’s a tribute concert played out with remarkably high production values, including studio-quality live music from a six-piece band. But the tone of adulation and sheer volume of material covered seem likely to overwhelm and eventually alienate all but the most devoted Jackson fans.

One of those, clearly, is the show’s mastermind, Adrian Grant, editor of the first-ever Jackson fanzine, producer since 1991 of an annual London-based Jackson stage celebration and personal friend of the King of Pop.

In extensive program notes, Grant raises, in order to dismiss, the inevitable questions about Jackson’s plastic surgery, changing skin color and reclusive lifestyle at Neverland Ranch; needless to say, photographs from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Dept. are nowhere to be found in production-related materials. This show is pure musical hagiography, a fanzine come to moonwalking, crotch-grabbing, high-note-scaling life.

To his credit, Grant has assembled an excellent creative team, led by choreographer-director Gary Lloyd, to realize his loving vision, and the overall approach — Jackson’s hits sung by four strong-voiced, charismatic leads, backed by a crackerjack team of singer-dancers — is effective and entertaining.

This is not immediately apparent, however, in a shaky first half-hour in which projected text hyping Jackson’s achievements (“750 million records sold worldwide,” etc.) alternates with bell-bottomed and ‘fro-wigged renditions of too-numerous Jackson Five tunes. Four boys alternate in subbing for pre-teen Michael; Kieran Alleyne, on the night reviewed, looked cute but lacked musical agility.

In between songs, the lead vocalists take turns reciting cringingly reverential narration about Jackson’s development and achievements. The show hits its stride only when attempts at storytelling are dropped and the full company takes the stage to dance and sing exuberantly through some of the Jacksons’ best late ’70s hits (“Shake Your Body,” “Blame It on the Boogie”). As the show cruises through the ’80s and hits from the “Off the Wall,” “Thriller” and “Bad” albums, it’s hard not to be won over by strong renditions of what was, by many estimations, some of the best pop/R&B music ever recorded.

This good faith is rapidly worn down, however, by increasingly idealized representations of the entertainer as we enter the period of his personal and professional decline. Saying that “Michael Jackson continues to inspire us all” is factually unsustainable, and placing his image in a sequence of portraits that includes Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama (in the week of the latter’s inauguration) stretches credibility to its breaking point.

Another shaky step in the show’s lengthy, hit-laden coda is the introduction of Jackson impersonator Ricko Baird. The production is at its best when celebrating Jackson but starts to feel creepy when it tries to embody him.

As with another tortured black man, Othello, “Thriller Live” suffers by loving its subject not wisely but too well. Trimming a good hour off its playing time could have better showcased the estimable talents onstage while celebrating Jackson’s undeniable musical achievements much more effectively.

Thriller Live

Lyric Theater Shaftesbury Avenue, London; 924 seats; £54 $74 top

Production

A Flying Music presentation in association with Adrian Grant of a musical entertainment in two acts. Directed and choreographed by Gary Lloyd. Original concept and executive director, Grant. Musical supervisor and head arranger, John Maher.

Creative

Sets, Jonathan Park; costumes, Adrian Gwilliam; lighting, Nigel Catmur; sound, Chris Whybrow; video content, Colin Rozee; production stage manager, John Dalston. Opened Jan. 21, 2009. Reviewed Jan. 20. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

With: Ricko Baird, Ben Foster, John Moabi, Denise Pearson, Roger Wright, Kieran Alleyne, Ashton Russell, Layton Williams, Sterling Williams, Jo Dyce, Earl Perkins, Sean Williams, Yasmin Yazdi, Dannii Rothman, Ross Sands, Kamilah Beckles, Jordan Darrell, Lewis Davies, Christabelle Field, Elliott James, Emily Rumbles.
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