Thriller Live – Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Director / Choreographer: Gary Lloyd

Musical Supervisor / Arranger: John Maher

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Now in its 9th year, Thriller Live wears its heart on its sequinned sleeve. Sketching the outline of Michael Jackson’s career in music and dance, this musical hasn’t lost its ability to capture an audience’s attention. Bold, brash and unapologetically so, it charts the Motown-inspired roots of The Jackson Five, through to 70’s disco, and then into Michael’s multi-selling albums of the 1980’s. Fans won’t be disappointed – all the hits are here – and there’s enough music from the catalogue to have you consulting Spotify as you leave.

But the production is not without its faults. The staging, right from the start, bursts in with a rage of colour and sound, almost to the point of sensory overload. It feels excessive rather than exuberant. The narrative segments, used to explain where we are going next, are broadly unnecessary. This is not a traditional musical, and when the music is this good – Human Nature, I’ll Be There, Off the Wall – play us the hits, and keep them coming. 

In selling the songs, Thriller uses a blend of male and female voices, highlighting the duality in Jackson’s sound. It lends a fresh interpretation to the tracks, none more so than The Way You Make Me Feel. Performed by Ina Seidou, the song becomes less ‘lads on the prowl’, and more ‘sisters doing it for themselves’.

The songs – clustered in groups and themes – are well spaced out over the evening. You will need a ballad after the urban flair of Smooth Criminal. The choreography from Gary Lloyd is excellent – the routines give the dancers enough room to play and improvise. Jackson’s work always had a spontaneity, as if the ideas were coming to him in the moment. It is a method he borrows wholesale from his hero Fred Astaire, and in the confines of a music video, it broadens the action to give it a cinematic feel.

While there is a bigger story to be told, in the back notes of Jackson’s life, the joy to be found in his melodies and choreography cannot be overlooked. His transition from child star to credible artist, his success – dazzling, astounding – is aspired to, but never conquered. Jackson’s imprint on the music industry not only endures; it is still the template for every solo artist wanting that break-through moment.

What this musical does, and does well, is not to linger on Michael Jackson’s past, but to examine what he still contributes to music. Thriller instead looks to the light. The child prodigy, outshining his brothers, the trend-setting teenager, and the seasoned professional taking stadium tours in his stride.

This type of musical will always play the numbers game. You will have no trouble filling seats with a play-list of global hits. But Thriller treads a fine line between giving us what we want and delivering what the material deserves. However, the energy of the cast is undeniable, and you get the feeling halfway through that, regardless of personal preference, resistance is futile. Thriller may not cater to every taste, and it is certainly not subtle – but in a performance packed with integrity and honesty, you’ll leave wanting more.

Runs until Saturday 16 June | Image: Contributed

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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