The main problem with creating a Cirque du Soleil show centered around Michael Jackson is this: The likelihood of finding any cast members who can dance as well as Jackson is so near zero that it can be rounded all the way down. That, coupled with the inviolably iconic familiarity of his routines, handicaps “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour” from really digging under the skin of the music. It’s still huge, bold, studded with great moments and poised to be a cash cow for years to come, but it manages to dazzle the eyes while leaving the heart largely unscathed.
In melding its two evergreen brands, “Immortal” leans more heavily on Michael’s iconography than on Cirque’s, and the show features fewer heart-stopping high-wire acts than might be expected. Indeed, most of the loudest cheers of the night came not from any particular performances but from the archival footage of Jackson regularly displayed on the stage’s huge LCD screens.
Which illustrates the dilemma faced by writer-director Jamie King. To create such a mammoth fan-oriented undertaking without including the imagery and choreography so indelibly linked with Jackson’s music would be heresy. So we get “Smooth Criminal’s” black-and-white noir palette and synchronized leans, a graveyard dance to “Thriller” and those great “West Side Story”-isms on “Beat It.” But without Jackson’s sublime gift for movement tying it all together, these routines can’t help put look like less-polished, more overblown copies of the originals.
Of course, few are better than King at crafting maximalist pop spectacles, and one can’t quibble with “Immortal’s” sheer bigness. Yet there are moments that demonstrate how great the production could have been. In one wonderfully low-key interlude set to “Human Nature,” the stage lights go out, and black-suited aerialists with bead lights attached to their bodies maneuver majestically in airborne rings in front of a starry black backdrop, their figures contorting into multicolored constellations. It’s perhaps the only segment that takes a true artistic leap in impressionistically interpreting Jackson’s music, and it’s absolutely stunning.
So too is the moment when, as “Smooth Criminal” winds down, a diminutive Jackson stand-in strips down to reveal herself as a female acrobat, then moves center stage to perform a jaw-dropping pole dance to “Dangerous.” This sense of surprise, misdirection and, well, danger is notable in its absence elsewhere.
But aside from these two standouts, the show’s first half is steadily entertaining. Bedazzled, white-suited mime Salah Benlemqawansa serves as the show’s ringleader, and gets in a nice bout of break-dancing. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” receives a rather Julie Taymorian treatment, with African-styled dancers cavorting around a percussionist and “Dancing Machine” is accompanied by an eye-catching ironworks-themed tap routine.
It isn’t hard to spot the filler, with the worst offender being a Jackson 5 medley involving five clowns in Afro wigs lip-syncing to “I Want You Back” — evoking Branson, Missouri more than Vegas. But it’s all fun enough, even with the recurring presence of Jackson’s ape companion, Bubbles.
After the intermission, as the show moves on to the more turgid message songs of Jackson’s later career, the mood descends into kitsch. “Earth Song” is imbued with so much treacly grandstanding that one almost wishes for a Jarvis Cocker cameo; “They Don’t Care About Us” features a phalanx of goose-stepping robots in front of video footage of KKK rallies and war orphans; and “Will You Be There” culminates with Jackson’s spectral image projected on a curtain in Christ-pose, while his voice, cracking with emotion, intones “you’re always in my heart.”
The star’s die-hard fans will perhaps be moved by this latter flourish, but there’s something deeply creepy about the ghostlike Jackson seeming to speak from beyond the grave. Of course, messianic gestures and sledgehammer symbology were as much a part of Jackson’s oeuvre as impeccable pop singles. But given the opportunity to find unexpected affinities between the Cirque style and the soul of Jackson’s music, it’s unfortunate that the show frequently opts to simply reflect his own warts-and-all self-image.
As Cirque did with the Beatles-themed “Love,” “Immortal’s” musical directors went back to the master tapes and did substantial remixes for the show’s soundtrack, adding in bits of spoken-word interludes and incidental music to carry the show along. And as with the Beatles, they wisely choose not to dally too heavy-handedly with the near-perfection of Jackson’s best studio output. A 12-piece live backing band offers further bombastic boost, with virtuosic, scantily-clad cellist Tina Guo turning heads on her Van Halen-esque spotlight solo.
Though none nail the supra-human grace of Jackson’s dancing, the skill of the huge ensemble cast is expectedly strong, with one-legged dancer Jean Sok in particular pulling off some impressively inventive moves with the help of crutches. Lighting, staging and tech work is of the highest possible calibre, as one would expect from a company of Cirque’s reputation.
The show arrived at the Staples Center for the first of three engagements Friday night, with an August return leg also planned before it lands permanently in Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay in 2013.