‘MJ The Musical’ reviews: Myles Frost ‘mesmerizing’ as Michael Jackson, but musical is ‘surface-skimming’

Two weeks after the closing of her play “Clyde’s,” Lynn Nottage has opened a new jukebox musical about a star who needs no introduction. Penned by the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, “MJ The Musical” features three dozen of Michael Jackson’s songs in a dramatization of the rehearsals for his blockbuster “Dangerous” world tour in 1992. The show also features flashbacks to Jackson’s beginnings in The Jackson 5 and his formative years.

“MJ” stars Broadway newcomer Myles Frost as the late sensation, while Walter Russell III and Christian Wilson alternate the role of Little Michael and Tavon Olds-Sample tackles the years in between. Christopher Wheeldon directs and choreographs the production, which also credits Rich + Tone Talauega with those singular Michael Jackson moves.

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Critics were overwhelmingly mixed on the musical on both its creative merits and its handling of Jackson’s most serious personal scandals (or lack thereof). In one of the most positive notices, Peter Marks (Washington Post) calls “MJ” a “glittering piece of bio-drama – slickly constructed, devised for maximum dazzle” and a “riveting, adrenaline rush of a show.” He praises Frost as “mesmerizing” and “magnetic and earthy and mysterious,” also singling out cast members Quentin Earl Darrington who plays the concert director Rob and Joe Jackson as “superb” and Ayana George as Michael’s mother Katherine as “sublime.” Though effusive, Marks acknowledges, “The show’s decidedly selective memory may be off-putting” to some audience members.

Naveen Kumar (Variety) offers a mixed reaction. He similarly applauds Frost as “impressive,” notes that Jackson’s music “remains undeniable,” and writes that the songs are performed by the ensemble with “stunning feats of likeness and skill.” Nevertheless, Kumar deems the musical “a high-shine and surface-skimming rehabilitation tour for its late subject” that “narrows in on a troubled time for the artist, apparently for the sake of depicting him as a victim of the tabloid press and presenting an oblique denial of unspecified wrongdoings.”

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Even less favorable, Helen Shaw (Vulture) says plainly, “Only the music and movement in ‘MJ’ work.” Though she considers some of the songs featured “the best pop songs ever written,” she explains, “The gap between the dull-as-dirt narrative sections and the musical performances is a fissure the show keeps falling into, throughout the night.” And although she thinks Frost is “uncanny” as Jackson, Shaw ultimately calls the musical “a Frankenstein’s monster constantly tugging apologetically at its forelock, making a pretense of Michael’s story while loudly and pointedly bracketing which parts of the story are available for sale.”

The Tony Awards prospects for “MJ” in the Best Musical category are questionable at best, not only because of these mixed reviews, but also because of the possible reluctance of at least some of the small number of nominators to supporting the work in light of Jackson’s serious controversies. While biographical jukebox musicals have had much success in this race – “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” “Ain’t Too Proud,” “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” all earned nominations in the past decade, and “Jersey Boys” famously won back in 2006 – “MJ” will also have a lot of strong competition from a slate of original works that includes “Six,” “Girl from the North Country,” “Diana,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Flying Over Sunset,” “Paradise Square,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Strange Loop,” and “Mr. Saturday Night.”

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Regardless of whether “MJ” makes the short list for the top honor, it seems entirely likely that its star Myles Frost will earn a Tony nomination for his Broadway debut. Even critics who had issues with the musical recognized Frost for exceeding at the impossible task of transforming into one of the world’s most recognizable entertainers. The category will have a number of recognizable and strong contenders, including Jay O. Sanders (“Girl from the North Country”), Rob McClure (“Mrs. Doubtfire”), Harry Hadden-Paton and Tony Yazbeck (“Flying Over Sunset”), Hugh Jackman (“The Music Man”), Jacquel Spivey (“A Strange Loop”), Billy Crystal (“Mr. Saturday Night”), and others, but with such a bravura performance Frost will presumably be near the top of many nominators’ lists.

From the creative team, Wheeldon could earn a nomination as choreographer for his work bringing dozens of Jackson’s songs to life in ways that are new and that honor his signature moves. Wheeldon has two past nominations for “An American in Paris,” on which he also served as director and choreographer, and he won for choreography. Nottage has the esteem of her peers as well as acclaim – two Pulitzer Prizes for “Ruined” and “Sweat” and a Tony nom for the latter – so she could earn her second Tony bid for her libretto, although some nominators might feel like the reviewers who criticized the book for sidestepping the thorniest aspects of its star’s legacy and ding the show for it. Even if that’s the case, Nottage could still earn that second nomination if “Clyde’s” lands a Best Play bid.

The musical’s design team is a similarly experienced crew featuring six-time Tony nominee and two-time winner Derek McLane as scenic designer, seven-time nominee and “Hamilton” winner Paul Tazewell as costume designer, 14-time nominee and six-time champion Natasha Katz as lighting designer, and two-time nominee Gareth Owen as sound designer.

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