Cirque du Soleil's Michael Jackson: The World Tour: Theater Review

Cirque du Soleil's "Michael Jackson: The World Tour" - H 2011
Cirque du Soleil combining dance-inspired circus acts with popular Michael Jackson songs will have the late pop star's fans cheering and his detractors scratching their heads.

The show, which had its world premiere in Montreal on Sunday night, features a circus mime, a contortionist, acrobats and dancers performing to the late King of Pop's songs.

MONTREAL -- The Gloved One may be dead, but thanks to Cirque du Soleil, the late pop star's life remains a circus with Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour saluting the King of Pop Sunday night with a world premiere in Montreal.

Here was another full on production from iconic concert director-choreographer Jamie King, a veteran concert tour director for Madonna, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Celine Dion.

But a concert being live performance, King's latest tour creation suffered without a star live performer to anchor the show and provide a focus.

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Sure, Jackson's digitally recorded voice, fronted by a live band and around 60 dancers and circus performers, drives the show. But Cirque du Soleil, for all its legendary inventiveness, can't match Michael Jackson, for all his iconic song-writing and dancing flamboyance, step for step, music performance for music performance.

In the late pop star's place, King's stage setting offers a fantastical realm, in keeping with Jackson's otherworldly persona. And the framing story is a plea for global love and peace embodied in a Giving Tree, one of the giant oak trees at the Neverland Ranch, and the apparent source of Jackson's song-writing creativity.

Set designer Mark Fisher's 12-meter-high Giving Tree, which opens to the concert audience via the Neverland Ranch gates, eventually gives way to a fantasy-driven world of ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, draw bridges and toy trains.

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"Have you seen my childhood," the audience hears Jackson's digital voice intone, as we recall his best Peter Pan plea that all along, Jackson was just a kid at heart, trying to relive a childhood he never knew.

We see on stage in The Immortal World Tour elephants, a giant hat big enough to hold two dancers, and a soft sculpture glove by which performers create varied hand positions.

And we see a young Michael as an animatronics puppet during the "Ben" track float in a giant balloon into the arena, to the applause of the capacity Bell Arena audience in Montreal.

It's all classic Cirque du Soleil, except, of course, for the absence of the late, great entertainer himself.

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His absence is all the more glaring each time Jackson shows up on a giant LED screen or the stage-length scrim, via video of his old gigs like the 1987 Bad World Tour, or the pyrotechnics and illusions of the 1992 Dangerous World Tour.  

King makes the most of the absence.

The red jacket, the sequins, the glittering glove and white sock/dance shoes are all represented with props. Dancers showcase the deceased singer's iconic steps, including the moonwalk and his famous leaning motion. Zombie dancers rise from the grave during the "Thriller" track, accompanied by pulsing synths and power choruses.

And there's the predictable Cirque du Soleil touches: a mime and a monkey figure dance together during the "Blame It on the Boogie" scene and four performers swing high in the air on ropes during the "Human Nature" track.

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But a circus mime, a contortionist, acrobats, and dancers and their sweat-breaking choreography can't replace the Real Deal. And make no mistake: Michael Jackson The Immortal Tour is not Jackson's life story.

We see a familiar character arc that took Jackson from musical boy wonder as a fifth of the Jackson 5 to global pop genius.

But a Cirque du Soleil production sanctioned by the Jackson family could well offend the pop star's detractors for dismissing much that held Jackson's fans and the paparazzi in thrall until his untimely death in 2009: the "sleeping with boys" allegations, Jackson in handcuffs and on trial, the pill popping, the bleached white skin, the spending sprees and the botched plastic surgery.

King's quasi-metaphysical storyline of Jackson¹s music and songs, and his quest for global love and protecting the world¹s children, instead never strays from a fantastical, circus sensibility.

But the magic of Michael Jackson: The Immortal Tour is the King of Pop's detractors will be left shaking their heads over what all the circus that's come to town means, and Jackson's legions of fans will know exactly what their idol is saying, seemingly from beyond the grave.