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Michael Jackson: Immortal
Madison Square Garden
Wednesday, April 4
Better than: Ringling Bros.
Cirque du Soleil’s take on Michael Jackson’s catalog, Michael Jackson: Immortal, is certainly ambitious. The twoish-hour set has a live band, aerialists and fireworks, flips and flops, a dancing sequined glove, and, of course, the songs that Jackson imprinted on American culture, from “I Want You Back” on.
Structured somewhat chronologically and built around the concept of what the Cirque folks are calling “Michael’s inspirational Giving Tree—the wellspring of his creativity,” the show moved along at a fast clip. The plot, as it is, is structured around the deeper meanings of Jackson’s more inspirational songs (as well as the controversial 1996 single “They Don’t Care About Us”); healing the world, saving the children, how one becomes a dancing machine, et cetera.
It was an overstimulating evening, for sure, albeit one that started off a bit sluggishly. (When the clips from the Jackson 5’s Saturday-morning cartoon showed up on the video screens above the stage, things really picked up.) The arena was mostly full, too, and full of people who seemed for the most part to be pretty thrilled to be there (although a bunch of people in my section did duck out at the intermission), which made me wonder if spectacles like Immortal, where ticket prices ranged from $68.25 to $202.30, are going to become more normal as pop stars age out of touring. And it also made me wonder if, in a sense, they already are.
Back when Jackson was working on the ill-fated string of shows at London’s O2 Arena (the filmed rehearsals would become the basis for the film This Is It), rumors swirled that Jackson would only be on stage for a fraction of the running time. Those rumors came to mind easily during last night’s production; as the aerialists dipped and swayed and the pyrotechnics popped to selection’s from Jackson’s catalog, the crowd still sang along, cheering for Michael as if he was about to come back onstage and bask in their adulation.
Jackson’s absence in one sense weighed heavily—his death means that he won’t come back to perform these songs again, let alone write even a minor yet thrilling hit like “Jam.” But in another sense, it hardly mattered; the songs, slightly reworked for dancing purposes and as a way to showcase the giant-mohawked guitarist and the cellist who sported what I can only refer to as a one-legged bikini catsuit, remained front and center, meaning that Jackson’s spectre did as well. The show reminded me of Britney Spears’s concert at Nassau Coliseum last summer; both at MSG last night and in Uniondale last August, there was a palpable void at the center of the proceedings, one that the directors and choreographers of the show tried to mask by dancing and strenuous entertaining. But last night, the presence of the memorable choruses and ecstatic ad-libs almost negated that absence. There was love for Michael, sure, but there was just as much love for the idea of listening to his music; the audience delighted in hearing the songs they loved in a communal setting, one where they could clap and chant along with their fellow enthusiasts.
Sure, Cirque du Soleil probably won’t expand their focus so that they give the Immortal treatment to, say, the catalog of Christina Aguilera come 2045. But I wouldn’t be surprised if star-absent revues similar to it started popping up for other artists who have toured behind their spectacles as much as they’ve toured behind their hits over the years; which artists it would work for is another story (Madonna? Cher? Celine?), although if there’s one thing the music business loves, it’s throwing back catalog at the wall and seeing what sticks long enough to create at least a little bit of revenue.
Critical bias: What, they couldn’t fit in “The Way You Make Me Feel”?
Overheard: “Did you ever play Super Smash Bros.?”—Nick Murray, when the giant glove appeared onstage.
Random notebook dump: Another lesson from last night: Some enterprising radio programmer out there would probably make a mint with an all-Jackson, all-the-time station.