The Cirque du Soleil show that celebrates Michael Jackson, “The Immortal World Tour,” is as singular as the performer himself. Part rock concert, part aerial fantasy, part multimedia extravaganza and part surreal performance art, the show, written and directed by Jamie King, manages to capture the essence of Jackson better than seems possible. Early reaction in Montreal indicates die-hard Jackson fans are ecstatic while non-believers remain so throughout, emerging more perplexed than elated. Still, even the show’s detractors have to concede that as spectacle, “Immortal Tour” is one of a kind.
A childlike Mime, more reminiscent of Marcel Marceau’s Bip than Jackson himself, is our guide through the inevitable journey from childhood to death, although everyone involved with the show rightly insists it’s not a biography. Instead it’s more of an impressionist collage than a realistic piece of portraiture.
The high, golden gates of Neverland part to lead us through a fantasy world where an animatronic baby Michael floats through the arena on a hot air balloon, while acrobats dressed in black float through the sky, their bodies illuminated to turn them into constellations. A live band plays with power and guts while the digitized voice of Michael sings along, joined by live backup singers.
The total effect is of presence and absence at the same time. No one plays Jackson, but his presence is everywhere.
He’s depicted as a prophet of peace, someone who wanted good in the world for everyone. But in the “Ghost Stories” sequence, the dark side of the man comes out, with “Thriller” emerging as a voodoo funeral rite in which performers dress in white and Haitian spirit Baron Samedi floats above them all. Driving numbers like “Bad” turn into parables of how Jackson let his image take over, as giant versions of his signature hat and glove dwarf the action.
Videos show Jackson driving himself — dancing, dancing, dancing — while clocks spin madly and the death we all know is coming races upon him.
Songs like his prophetic “Gone Too Soon,” with its lines “Born to amuse, to inspire to delight/Here one day and gone one night,” acquire a new edge, and when a stage full of pulsating red hearts finally fades into darkness, we see an old black and white film of child Michael from The Jackson Five singing “I’ll Be There” with the bittersweet quality he knew all his life.
With a cast of more than 50 dancers and acrobats, teams of choreographers and more technical credits than some large-scale movie spectacles, it’s hard to allot praise individually. But writer/director King has imposed a real shape onto this mass of material. Yes, it’s uneven and overlong in its current format, but past produtions have illustrated that Cirque knows how to fix a show once it’s up on their feet.
Judging from the reaction of the Montreal crowd to the opening and the brisk ticket sales across North America, this show seems certain to have legs.