Michael Jackson did not lead a pretty life. Michael Jackson: ONE, Cirque du Soleil’s latest artist-driven show in Las Vegas, could have been pleasant and poppy, relying only on the late performer’s music and our collective nostalgia for his effervescent songs. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. The show opens with a faded projection of the entrance to Jackson’s Neverland Ranch as performers in Jackson’s iconic red jacket troll the aisles of the Michael Jackson Theater at Mandalay Bay, taking invasive paparazzi photos of the patrons, while splashy tabloid headlines adorn the walls. It is an assault that elevates the grand display above the level of a tribute. ONE is an unflinching representation of Jackson’s life and his songs — and it is a lot of fun.
Running just over two hours, the dazzling production morphs from song to song, as projected images of Jackson and scenes from his incredible music videos appear between gravity-defying setpieces. The focus is always on the performers and Jackson’s songs, each staged like a unique masterpiece.
The show’s narrative is loosely structured around four main characters on a journey to Neverland. Along the way, they find Jackson’s iconic penny loafers and socks, his sparkly glove, his fedora, and his sunglasses, while also growing up and finding peace. The dubious and overly sentimental Wizard of Oz premise, however, does not diminish from the pleasure of the show and the simple wonder of performers like Charles Riley, who stands out with his unreal moonwalking.
”Thriller” is one of the high points. Through the first half of the song, acrobats flip and fly past one another with astounding grace on a half dozen trampolines. But just as one begins to yearn for a nod to the classic dance from the video that’s seared into our collective consciousness, Cirque delivers with an army of acrobatic zombies lurching side to side, arms cocked at the elbows. ”Billie Jean” and ”Smooth Criminal” are also energetic and engaging, enhanced by LED-laden costumes and flying Japanese acrobats.
While many of the show’s visual cues come from Jackson’s music videos, sometimes the act of homage becomes a crutch. The interpretation of ”Scream,” Jackson’s violent duet with his sister Janet, draws heavily from Mark Romanek’s seminal video, but adding animated characters to the spaceship imagery unfortunately draws attention away from the acrobatics.
The pace slows for numbers like ”Stranger in Moscow,” featuring a Terry Gilliam-style moon child that descends over the audience, and ”I’ll Be There,” one of the few Jackson 5 numbers, staged simply with a static projection of a 12-year-old Jackson and a tiny acrobat in pink tights and a pink pleated skirt.
”Man in the Mirror” delivers a surprising and emotional gut-punch when a Jackson hologram appears alongside the dancers in his gold pants, white T-shirt, and unbuttoned white dress shirt. Compared to the hologram Tupac that appeared briefly onstage with Dr. Dre at Coachella in 2012, hologram MJ is a dynamic performer in his own right — in some moments you forget it’s a hologram — and it’s not even the last number in the set.
ONE is less flashy than other Cirque du Soleil efforts — the emphasis is on the songs and performers, not the inventive sets and production design of shows like Ka and O. The set never upstages the performers or the music, which is broadcast to every audience member through custom in-seat speakers. Michael Jackson: ONE may not be the family outing promised on the website (which requires that kids be at least 5 years old) — the ”Thriller” zombies are particularly creepy, especially when stalking the aisles beside you — but even passive Jackson fans will find something to enjoy. B+