Michael Jackson fans will need no reminding that their show is in town this week. We are just a month away from the tenth anniversary of the troubled star’s premature death, but his name and sound still sells records and fills theatres.
This fan show started life in 2007 in the UK and versions of it have been touring the world ever since. If you like Jackson’s music and style of dance and presentation then you will certainly enjoy this high energy show.
Some theatrical shows about pop stars attempt a narrative along with the succession of familiar tunes, but not this one. There is a bare minimum of spoken word, used only really to introduce different sectors of the star’s oeuvre while the cast complete yet another costume change offstage.
With seven vocalists, a dozen dancers and a seven piece band the Theatre Royal stage is full, leading to some interesting teetering moments as hip hop dancers throw themselves about with perilous abandon. The set is busy all the time and the dancers get several thorough workouts in this lengthy show. They are impressive, with high kicks and back flips aplenty and many well choreographed numbers. A lot of numbers, with nineteen songs in the first half and sixteen in the second. For the dedicated fans who filled the auditorium this was clearly welcome, but for one or two of us less loyal souls it went on a bit.
The producers rightly believe that no one singer can do Jackson justice, his was a uniquely engaging talent. So they have seven assorted vocalists tackling the legacy, with many songs performed as a quartet of three male and one female voice. All the vocalists are very good, but it takes the ear a while to adjust away from the very distinctive sound of Jackson produced by the likes of Quincy Jones. Female and male they are slim, black and sexy, mostly. Rory Taylor stands out as he looks more like a Romford builder than a tortured Motown soul, but he is a really great singer. Resident director Britt Quentin has an uncanny similarity to Jackson. Each vocalist also contributes to the complex dance routines of the show, but two stood out for their vocal work – Trace Kennedy (who my companion pointed out as excellent about 452 times after the show) and Leticia Hector, who gave character to her singing and looked as if she was thoroughly enjoying herself on stage. Young singer Kieran Alleyne from Leicester was very impressive in some of the set-piece dances that were special to Jackson. One to watch out for in future.
While this show will be sure to please the many thousands of dedicated Jackson fans I can’t help feeling that it is a rather unadventurous effort. During the first half the phrase that sprang to my mind is that Thriller Live has almost the excitement of a Val Doonican Show, but slightly less panache. To be fair things perked up a bit in the second half, but the strong finish was a long time coming. Earth Song is moving, and the cast reflected this, and the rendition of Beat it was a high point, but by the time we finally got to Thriller the thrill had gone for me. In a nod to the continuing controversy around Jackson’s interaction with youngsters there are now no young performers in the show, with Rocking Robin, his most famous junior song, performed only on video by a lookalike. A pragmatic quibble – as Jackson himself would be in his 60s now if alive the producers probably need to recognise the demographic of the audience. Insisting on bouts of clapalong with the audience on its feet means that many miss out on some stage visibility, particularly the people in wheelchairs, and the fashion for a bank of lights flashing directly into our eyes is just bloody annoying self indulgence.
The cast cannot be faulted for their enthusiasm, skills or energy but I would like to see the producers get a firm grip on this show and edit it down a bit. Or maybe it is time for a new musical that looks into the truly bizarre life story of this troubled genius while highlighting his performing legacy. There’s a challenge. Meanwhile this ‘Thriller Live’ is at best a very well executed tribute band concert. If you love the music, you may just be lucky enough to get a ticket for this week’s shows. If not, search for a few videos online that show just how good Jackson was. They will show you just how hard this cast work to get the looks and moves right, and all the odd musical tics so distinctive to MJ. Now beat it!
© Julian Swainson 2019
Thriller Live plays at Norwich Theatre Royal until 1st June. To book, log onto www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 630000.