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MJ THE MUSICAL at Shea’s delivers on its promise to thrill the 100% sold-out audience

THE BASICS:  MJ THE MUSICAL (8 shows), book by Lynn Nottage, national tour presented by Shea’s Performing Arts Center 6/11 – 16, 2024 Tue – Fri 7:30, Sat 2:00 and 8:00, Sun 1:00 and 6:30 at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre / Shea’s Performing Arts Center on Main Street in the heart of Buffalo’s Theatre District. (716) 847-0850  sheas.org

RUNTIME: 2 Hours and 30 minutes including a 15-minute intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Centered around the rehearsals for and the making of the 1992 “Dangerous World Tour,” MJ offers a rare look at the creative mind, the respect for those who came before, and the collaborative spirit that made Michael Jackson into the legend that he remains.  It’s a biographical jukebox musical, not unlike JERSEY BOYS or AIN’T TOO PROUD.  MJ uses a variety of equally adept actors to portray various stages of Jackson’s career.  Some of these are prompted by a single reporter allowed (at first reluctantly) into the rehearsal studio.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:  Usually I write a review to either encourage readers to attend a great show that they might miss or to warn them off of a bad production that misses the mark.  Neither of those applies here because the entire run of MJ at Shea’s is 100% sold out.  On opening night, the presenter who books most of what we see at Shea’s, Albert Nocciolino, told me that there had been one ticket left when he checked at 3 pm, but he was sure that had been snapped up.  So, it doesn’t matter what I say.  If you’ve got your ticket, you’ll go, and if you don’t, you won’t.  If you go, you’ll love the band, the dancing, and the portrayals of Michael Jackson through the years.

Roman Banks as MJ | Matthew Murphy of MurphyMade

The play’s throughline is that the Jackson boys, having been formed into a band by their father, steelworker by day, bar band musician by night, are relentlessly pushed by him to rehearse to perfection, so that they don’t end up like him, never fulfilling his dreams.  The upshot is that, while much more successful than his father, adult Michael does end up exactly like the old man, pursued by his own demons, pushing himself and his dancers to perfection and driving his producers to distraction, asking them to invest more and more and more in creating reality from his dreams.  As MJ goads his producers: “If we don’t do it, Prince will!”  (However, the jet-pack entrance was never going to happen).  

One of the sayings from MJ’s notebooks (projected on the curtain before Act II) is “Study the Greats and Become Greater.”  And that was the big insight for me, to learn what a student of music and dance MJ was.  After years of performing with his brothers at Apollo amateur night, then for Motown mogul Barry Gordy, and then on their own at Epic Records, Michael went out on his own and worked with Quincy Jones to ultimately produce “Thriller” which changed the face of popular entertainment forever.  Together, Quincy Jones and MJ would spend days just listening to complete albums of the greats from over the decades, analyzing what made each song memorable, teasing out each song’s hidden secret.

Jaylen Lyndon Hunter as Little Marlon Ethan Joseph as Little Michael and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

Jackson also studied the great dancers of the past, and we see on-stage portrayals of both Hollywood’s Fred Astaire and Broadway’s Bob Fosse. I don’t know why I missed that all these years, but once you see it, the Fred Astaire smoothness and ability to float combined with the Fosse hipness are all there and unmistakable.  Truly, MJ was a creative genius, but he was also a very hard worker and a great student.  

Of course, the music is mostly by Michael Jackson or his boyhood group, The Jackson Five, with short appearances (portrayed on stage when young Michael is seen watching the TV show “Soul Train”) by Smokey Robinson, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, etc.  “The Book” (storyline and dialog) is by two-time Pulitzer Prize for drama-winning, MacArthur “Genius” prize-winning Lynn Nottage.  Her name should be familiar to Buffalo audiences.  Her play INTIMATE APPAREL, about a young black seamstress with an abusive man in her life, was produced at both Buffalo State and Chautauqua.  Her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama RUINED, about the plight of abused women in the Congo, was produced by Ujima Co.  And most recently, her other Pulitzer Prize-winning drama SWEAT, about tensions that affect workers when a factory is closing, was produced at Road Less Traveled Productions.  Lynn Nottage’s characters are usually black working-class people preyed upon by someone or some people in their lives.  Nottage was the right choice for this project.

This musical is very similar to AIN’T TOO PROUD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE TEMPTATIONS, which has a book by another black playwright, Dominique Morisseau, who also writes about working-class black families caught in the middle of great social change, and whose works have been produced by various WNY theaters.  

To sum up, the portrayals of MJ are excellent, and we see most of the signature moves in the high-energy opening number “Beat It.”  The sets by Derek McLane and the projections by Peter Nigrini work seamlessly together to create an arena feel that, together with a stunning pit orchestra (some seen on stage) and the best, crispiest, most balanced sound I’ve ever heard at Shea’s, along with the overwhelming energy of the audience, make for quite an experience.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

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