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  • Megan Kudla

MJ the Musical Smashes the Chicago Stage


Roman Banks as 'MJ' and the cast of the MJ First National Tour.  Featured in Round Trip with Colleen Kelly's MJ  the Musical Smashes the Chicago Stage
Roman Banks as 'MJ' and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by: Matthew Murphy

With a musical catalog as enormous as that of Michael Jackson, a newly minted story combining such a discography with his life’s story is bound to be quite the undertaking. Upon opening the playbill to MJ, principle to note is that there is no lack of best hits in the lineup. Yet, with the onslaught of new musicals depicting the life stories of our biggest names in pop culture, a killer setlist just isn’t enough.


Luckily, MJ also provides no lack in stellar performance, production quality, and choreography. Roman Banks, who steps into the lead role as MJ, smoothly sails across the stage and shows off the carefully crafted technique that we associate with MJ. Banks, as well as Brandon Lee Harris, who portrays a younger Michael, and duo Josiah Benson and Ethan Joseph, who portray Little Michael, not only accurately and remarkably capture the pop icon’s movement but also his vocality, knowing exactly when to soften and when to bite. And the entire cast gives soulful performances–their own expressions of well-known melodies.


Roman Banks as 'MJ' and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. featured in Round Trip with Colleen Kelly's MJ the Musical Smashes the Chicago Stage
Roman Banks as 'MJ' and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by: Matthew Murphy

Setting the scene, we find ourselves in the studio with MJ, his production and management team, and his dancers toward the end of the rehearsal process for the 1992 Dangerous World Tour. Money is tight, the performers are tired, and MJ continues to strive for absolute perfection. But instead of immediately being pulled into Michael’s dream world (Thatʻs to come!), we are taken backward in time as MTV reporters attempt to dig into his past; although, as Michael insists, we are given only what he is willing to reveal of his story through his point of view.


During Act One, the Dangerous tour rehearsal space provides a structure for the ghosts of MJ’s childhood to begin populating the stage. Suddenly, a montage of memories that are hidden in the corners of the room emerge, taking us through the start of it all–the formation of the Jackson 5 and the fundamental, detrimental influence of their father, Joseph (Devin Bowles).

Brandon Lee Harris as 'Michael' and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. featured in Round Trip with Colleen Kelly's MJ the Musical Smashes the Chicago Stage
Brandon Lee Harris as 'Michael' and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by: Matthew Murphy

The plot takes us back and forth, continually utilizing the power of shapeshifting to allow the props and the characters to fluctuate between the places and people of MJ’s past and present, showing how his coming of age influenced his mindset during the Dangerous era.


When Act Two arrives, different emotionally charged performances of particular MJ tracks and choreography transform the space, increasingly camouflaging the rehearsal room where the narration is occurring. This gives us access inside MJʻs interpretation of the world around him. Even the level of showstopping production that is presented to the audience mimics the high standards that we see MJ hold his Dangerous tour to.


These abstract “worlds” that we are taken to as MJ gets lost in his creative process are bolstered by both original choreography that is resurfaced by experts Rich and Tone Talauega, who worked with MJ throughout his career, and layered with new choreography from Christopher Wheeldon (perhaps most known for his direction and choreography in An American in Paris). This layering of movement, as well as the book by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, provides new landscapes with which to create dream sequences that play out in MJ’s mind and attach new meanings to old songs.


This production will be in Chicago until September 2, 2023, at the James M. Nederlander Theatre.


You can find more information at https://www.broadwayinchicago.com/.



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