Director and Choreographer: Gary Lloyd
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
In the later years of Michael Jackson’s career, his offstage life tended to overshadow the huge cultural legacy his music – first as the juvenile lead of the Jackson 5, later as one of the world’s most successful solo acts – left the world. From the late 1960s until his death in 2009, Jackson’s music didn’t just pervade popular music,it helped to define it.
That simple fact is one of the reasons why Thriller Live has survived as both a touring show and a West End production for so long. This latest tour sees a few tweaks to the format, but ultimately it is driven by an affection for the material, and a desire to do it justice, that proves impossible to resist.
Previous iterations’ video walls have commenced the show with bombastic pronouncements of Jackson’s commercial success, but these are now gone, allowing for the music to speak for itself from the off. Under the musical direction of Mike Lindup, the onstage band recreate the sound of each of Jackson’s musical eras, from the early days of Motown, through the move to Epic Records and the discovery of disco, to his later solo albums Thriller and Bad, which each had more hits than many current acts have in their entire careers. While some of Jackson’s later hits are peppered throughout the show, there’s nevertheless a rough chronological feel to the show’s structure, allowing one to see how the singer’s earlier work matured and influenced his later styles.
Unfortunately the rôle of the young Michael Jackson – which on the West End stage allows some young performers their first taste of life in the spotlight – is relegated to a video screen performance on tour, one imagines for both chaperoning and budgetary reasons. It’s not a successful replacement, the video choreography not always keeping pace with the onstage performance. Still, in other songs from the era it allows the show’s principal female, Cleopatra Higgins, to take lead vocal, which is always a delight.
Higgins is joined in vocal duties by Shaquille Hemmans, Rory Taylor, Michael Kavuma and Sean Christopher, although the latter’s strength is more in his recreation of some of Jackson’s iconic dance sequences. Jackson’s solo career coincided with the rise of the pop video, and no performer quite matched his ability to turn a promo into a mini-movie whose visuals were as important as the song itself. It also means that, particularly in the second act, director/choreographer Gary Lloyd’s work is one of adaptation, getting big-budget dance sequences onto the stage with all the recognisable moves intact.
And it is in those same sequences that the ensemble really comes into their own. Whether as flesh-eating zombies in Thriller, suited gangsters and their molls in Smooth Criminal or tough-strutting disco gang members in Beat It, they imbue each routine with obvious affection for the source material. And in some of the more informal numbers, the jumps, backflips and b-boy moves show that there is more to them than imitating their 1990s predecessors.
The big numbers – Billie Jean, Bad and, of course, Thriller itself – are held back until the end for the obligatory contrived encore sequence. But it does ensure that the evening ends on the highest of highs. Tribute acts may not be to everyone’s taste, but within the genre there is none better than Thriller Live, and it shows no sign of ceding that top spot anytime soon.
Runs until 24 October 2015 and on tour | Image: Contributed