It was not my first visit – as with my others, we were guests of the show’s PR company – but it was Steve’s. It’s always interesting to revisit a show with someone seeing it for the first time; all the more so with one that traverses Jackson’s career from the early 1970s onwards when your friend is 16 years younger than you, and for whom anything before Bad is a historical document rather than the soundtrack to one’s childhood.
The more-or-less chronological structure to Act I, then, starting with the Jackson Five’s early Motown days and progressing into their move into disco and into Off the Wall, Jackson’s first solo album, defers the full enjoyment for those who prefer the singer’s later works. But it does show Jackson’s musical roots, and his eagerness to embrace and absorb different musical styles which fuelled his later works clearly had their foundations in this period of his life.
And it is as the young Michael Jackson that this iteration of the cast showcases their strongest performer, in 10-year-old Eshan Gopal (who shares the role of young Michael with five other boys). Already possessing a vocal strength and dance ability that performers three times his age would feel lucky to have, Gopal also has the self-confidence that comes with youth without the cockiness by which it is all too often accompanied.
By necessity, Gopal’s role all but disappears after the first few songs, leaving the stage free for the adult performers to bring life to the rest of Jackson’s back catalogue. Four performers – Britt Quentin, Ricardo Alfonso, Zoe Birkett and Andrae Palmer – share the responsibility of lead vocals from song to song, either in solo or combination. Some of Jackson’s most choreography-heavy classics, from Dangerous to Billie Jean, see performer David Jordan take on the iconic routines – but it is a shame to see that he is so obviously lip-syncing to a distracting degree. While the choreography is understandably intense, to the extent that even the most hardened of musical theatre performer would struggle to sing effectively while dancing Jackson’s steps, I can’t help but feel it may have been more effective to have an onstage vocalist separate from the dancer, rather than attempting to pretend that they were one and the same.
Elsewhere, the choreography is at its strongest when recreating that from some of Jackson’s most familiar music videos, from Beat It to Dangerous, Smooth Criminal and, of course, Thriller itself. The ensemble complement those classic moves with some impressive acrobatics and street dance moves – or at least, the men do; the female dancers seem curiously unserved by the choreography they’re given, often doing little more than strutting while looking fierce as the men back flip and head spin around them.
But niggles aside, it’s a relentless, in-your-face, take-no-prisoners onslaught of enjoyment for most of the evening. Narration and context is kept to a minimum to make as much room as possible for as many hits as possible (although quite why This Place Hotel gets an inclusion when so much of Jackson’s excellent later work, such as Scream, is nowhere to be seen remains a mystery).
It’s not a narrative piece of musical theatre, and some sniffier critics seem to resent Thriller: Live’s West End residency (now over five years and counting) for that reason. But that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most entertaining tribute shows you could wish for, and a reminder of just how extensive and diverse Jackson’s back catalogue was, and how brilliantly it stands up to scrutiny today.