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'MJ The Musical' Remembers the Bright Moments in Michael Jackson’s Rise to Fame

By Cassiopeia Guthrie, March 9, 2024

The MJ The Musical tour is moonwalking through town at Broadway San Diego’s Civic Theatre this week. And, though the legacy of the artist himself is somewhat controversial, the production, set in 1992, captures instead the charisma and resilience of the beleaguered pop artist.

Michael dances with his backup dancers.
Roman Banks and the cast of 'MJ the Musical.' Photo credit: Matthew Murphy of MurphyMade.

Written by Lynn Nottage and directed/choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, the musical takes place a couple of days prior to the launch of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous tour, coinciding with the arrival of MTV producer Rachel (played by swing Ayla Stackhouse) and her camera man, Alejandro (Da’von T. Moody).

As the reclusive star (Roman Banks) and his team rehearse a series of numbers for the show, he finds himself tripping into the memories sparked by each, bringing the audience along for the ride. Jackson’s tour director, Rob (Devin Bowles), becomes his father, Joseph; one is affable and pragmatic, whereas the other is an abusive opportunist. The exuberant son of a tour singer transforms via flashback to Little Michael himself (Josiah Benson). As Jackson’s plans for the tour grow more and more elaborate, the audience begins to see the world and opportunity closing in on him.

In this area, Banks is exquisite. Not only has he captured the star’s soft spokenness, playful personality, and vocal and choreographic skill, but he avails himself of many of Jackson’s mannerisms seamlessly. His dance crew, always close at hand, do a great job of bringing popular songs, including Beat It, Billie Jean, Smooth Criminal, and Thriller to life.

Little Michael and mom Katherine sing "I'll Be There."
Josiah Benson and Anastasia Talley in 'MJ The Musical.' Photo by Matthew Murphy of MurphyMade.

Particularly catchy are the numbers with little (Benson) and a teenaged (Brandon Lee Harris) Michael. Banks looks on as the Jackson 5 perform their high energy Motown hits and, later, as his younger self moves into his Grammy era.

The show also features a gorgeous rendition of “I’ll Be There,” performed as a soaring duet with mother Katherine Jackson, played by Anastasia Talley, an electric, hopeful “Human Nature,” and a gorgeous dance compilation featuring Fosse (Croix Diienno), Astaire (Matteo Marretta) and the Nicholas Brothers (Chelsea Mitchell-Bonsu and Brion Marquis Watson) that shows how their work inspired Michael’s own dancing.

Set primarily in an austere studio with rotating mirror walls (designed by Derek McLane), the play’s passage of time is denoted by light cues (Natasha Katz) and projections (Peter Nigrini) that span the back walls and bring the storyline to life. The transitions for the show are tight and crisp under the oversight of production stage manager Shawn Pennington.

MJ and his back-up dancers perform in the studio.
Roman Banks and the cast of 'MJ the Musical.' Photo credit: Matthew Murphy of MurphyMade.

While some of the darker hints at Jackson’s future troubles are certainly present - painkiller use is seen in the show and we see his defensive attitude toward the press - the production overall paints Jackson in a positive light, as one might expect, seeing as how its development was in collaboration with his estate. 

Many audience members may struggle with this sanitized legacy. For those who just want to spend a couple of hours posthumously with the King of Pop and a stage full of talented singers and dancers, however, MJ the Musical provides a way to escape into the past. The tour is in town through March 10.


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