Myles Frost and cast
Photo: Matthew Murphy
by Deirdre Donovan
Christopher Wheeldon has pulled off the impossible
with MJ. Indeed, the British director-choreographer
has conceived a production on Michael Jackson that works well both on
the biographical and musical level and leans lightly on his notorious
The secret of Wheeldon’s success is that he realizes that the King of Pop
was, first and foremost, an artist with a capital “A.” He focuses on his
musical genius and the phenomenal achievements of the legendary
performer, allowing the creative process to come to the
fore. Relying on Lynn Nottage’s excellent book, and drawing on
his own eminent ballet background (Wheeldon won the 2015 Tony Award for
Best Choreography for An American in Paris) for
inspiration, Wheeldon presents Jackson as a man in love with his art, a
self-made superman who would stop at nothing to achieve his dream.
Myles Frost in MJ
This is not to underestimate the spell-binding performance of
Myles Frost, (making his Broadway debut), suggesting an indomitable will
under a charming façade as MJ, or the terrific performance of
Christian Wilson whose Little Michael is eye-popping as he goes through
his dance numbers. Also admirable is Quentin Earl Darrington’s
doubling as concert director Rob and MJ’s father Joseph
Jackson, Whitney Bashor’s Rachel, and Ayana
George as Katherine Jackson.
Fortunately, the creative team are all on the same page. Derek
McLane’s capacious set, abetted by Natasha Katz’
protean lighting, accommodates the breadth of the biodrama
and ensures that all the dance numbers (Yes, we see Frost uncannily
executing MJ’s moonwalking with panache!) have the space to take
off. Paul Tazwell’s authentic-looking costumes are just right.
Gareth Owen’s sound design, in synch with David Holcenberg and Jason
Michael Webb’s musical wizardry, ensures that we can hear all the
rich vibes crossing the footlights without fear of rupturing our
eardrums. And Peter Nigrini’s projection design creates delicious
ambience for the various towns and cities that MJ once lived in or visited
over the years.
(From left): Quentin Earl Darrington, Myles Frost
Another nice touch in this production is the fluidity of its transitions,
not only between scenes, but within scenes. Yes,
forget time and space in this surrealistic work. Indeed,
the character MJ, who serves as narrator, often insinuates himself
into pivotal episodes, in which Little Michael or Middle Michael (the
versatile Tavon Olds-Sample) are experiencing growing pains or
perhaps contemplating their next smart career move in
showbiz. No question that MJ’s continual toggling between the
past and present blurs the boundaries of time in the show. What’s
more, it symbolically points up that MJ’s turbulent past was not forgotten
and that it ever informed his present-day life.
Favorite moment in the show? It’s unfair to single out any
one episode when so many are memorable. However, when George’s
Katherine poignantly sings “I’ll Be There” to Little Michael in Act
One, it’s difficult to top its tender maternal power. In fact,
the audience became so mesmerized by the song that not a single cough
could be heard throughout the entire theater as George teased out the
So why isn’t this jukebox musical filled with more
controversial material? Well, one of the reasons
is that MJ is not a cradle-to-grave
story. It takes place in 1992, right before the notorious
allegations against Jackson exploded in the media in 1993.
It also may be worth mentioning that both Wheeldon and book-writer Nottage
approached their MJ project with the intent of
bringing balance to it. In a New York Times
article (April 23, 2019) entitled “Michael Jackson Musical Creators:
‘We’re Not Judge and Jury,’” Wheeldon remarked that as he and Nottage
developed their MJ project (which was approved by the Michael
Jackson Estate), they attempted to “paint a balanced
picture.” Wheeldon added that they consciously decided to “lean
into the complexities, lean into the darkness, but also recognize
the great amount of music and film and choreography that Michael left
In sum, MJ is not a piece of journalism. It’s a
creative work inspired by the astonishing art of Michael Jackson, with a
score made-up of 28 of Jackson’s most beloved songs, including the
best-sellers “Beat It,” “Smooth Criminal,” and “Stranger in Moscow,” to
mention a few.
While some theatergoers may criticize MJ for its “selective memory,”
others will simply watch the amazing Myles Frost inhabiting the King of
Pop and applaud him—and Wheeldon—for resurrecting the iconic artist
at the Neil Simon.
At the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd. Street, Midtown.
For tickets and more information on MJ, visit www.mjthemusical.com
Running time: 2 hours; 30 minutes with one intermission.