I consider myself a casual Michael Jackson fan; I've long owned worn vinyl copies of Thriller and Off the Wall, and have fuzzy memories of attempting -- painfully -- to learn the dance moves in the videos for "Beat It" and "Scream" (oddly, a personal favorite). But I know I will never fully appreciate what Michael did for his fans, how much he obviously meant to the costumed group sitting in front of me at the Oracle Arena in Oakland on Tuesday evening during Cirque du Soleil's thrilling new production, Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour. But I was there for the spectacle of it all, and spectacle I got.
It began with a whimper, as I suspect most Cirque du Soleil productions do, to impress with the thundering glittery expanse soon thereafter and to later highlight the true magnitude of the event. Start small, end gigantic. Tumbling on to the rounded area of the stage at the center of the arena, a few young Michaels in bright bell-bottoms and 'fros stumbled around in a clowny dance routine. Drop the curtain, flash the lights, and shoot the pyrotechnics into electric showers of flickering white; and the stylized beauty of the production was on its way.
There were dozens of costume changes, impressive backdrops, and a few totems of MJ (hearts, globes, a giant hot air balloon). The physical humming, lit-up red heart was a constant throughout the night, with dancers holding up flashing hearts during big important moments. Michael's “Heal the World” sentiment was also a recurring theme; bulbous globes appeared in both dancers’ paws and hovering above, raised into the Oracle's huge space, as contortionist acrobats spun on spindly hoops. Near the end dancers came marching out holding gigantic national flags. Throughout the evening there were taut bodies wearing light-up costumes – the bodysuits sometimes shone harsh and bright with severe neon curve-defining lines a la Tron, other times twinkled with sparkling stars during heartfelt numbers -- those moments occasionally nearing schmaltzy.
Each number popped with Michaelian (Jacksonian?) intensity, be it by force or remembrance. From the bold, stomping silver heart-shaped military marching during "They Don't Really Care About Us" to the sweet, earthy white-draped mid-air tumbling during the more somber songs. I suspect those more subdued, tender parts -- "You Are Not Alone" et al. -- were for the true, obsessed fans in the audience, of which there were many. They were for those who miss him dearly, eternally, and came out dressed in bright red military garb, a solitary sequin glove, liquid black eyeliner, and delicate Michael-style curls plastered to the nape of the neck (again I'm talking about the crew near me). I felt the devotion and melancholy of the impersonator in Harmony Korine's Mr. Lonely. It was luck that I got to be so near these fans, I felt their heat, and I danced when they danced.
I much enjoyed the clock-cranking steampunk dance number with brassy robots pulling dancers, tapdancers atop pedestals, and high-flying acrobats flipping over machines. "Thriller" was also properly awesome, a smoky graveyard filled with mummy-like zombies wrapped in sexy gauze. There were song montages, classic choreography, and videos throughout, along with a man-sized sequined glove dancing, a pair of giant loafers, and plenty of actual Michael clips and quotes.
The musicians on stage brought a sense of the present, playing over MJ's own recordings. With live brass horns, an insanely awesome bikini-clad electric cellist, and a seriously shredding guitarist (along with a full backing band), the show was also very much an arena concert.
Cirque and Michael merged best when a cluster of expert dancers would move seamlessly from classic choreography to high-flying acrobat, shot to the roof on pulleys and chords while the live band played below. An expert breakdancer mime in a sequined b-boy cap, the ringmaster also provided a nice bridge between the late King of Pop and the French-Canadian company.
While celebrating Michael in likely the most spectacular way possible, the night also served as a sobering reminder of his untimely passing. I saw many wiping tears from their cheeks. I couldn't help but feel the same. The touring show is not for just the eternally Michael obsessed (though they'll be there), it's for the casual fan as well, those who only pull out Off The Wall when it's time to dance.
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