Everyone loves a bit of Michael Jackson, right? The question is – do you love him quite enough to sit through two hours of Cirque du Soleil flinging themselves around to his records?
Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour rolled into Hong Kong’s AsiaWorld-Expo last week – and the overriding feeling was of watching a concert where the star performer had gone AWOL. Talented backing singers, a bombastic live band, acrobatic teams of dancers and spectacular production values… Cirque du Soleil brought it all (save an actual narrative – no surprise there then), yet none of it could disguise the gaping charisma vacuum at the centre of the show.
Essentially an overlong mix-tape of Jackson’s greatest hits with different set pieces to match, there’s no faulting the talent of the ever cartwheeling, bungee-jumping, body-popping Cirque performers (and incredibly, one of them does it all on just one leg and some crutches). Yet all too often, their stunts simply didn’t match the music or just weren’t exciting, interesting or innovative enough to compete with the majesty of some of the greatest pop songs of all time.
The good? A stylish and slick section comprising This Place Hotel, Smooth Criminal (complete with crowd-pleasing lean move) and Dangerous, featuring the most amazing, eye-boggling pole dancing moves I’ve ever seen. Similarly evocative and visually arresting were a breath-taking straps duo, twisting and turning through the air beautifully to I Just Can’t Stop Loving You against a starry-skied backdrop – just the right amount of syrupy yet stunning.
The bad? A totally creepy Childhood featuring giant eerie child (yes really), the bombastic pairing of Beat It and Bad being wasted on a giant dancing glove (yes REALLY) and a man dressed as Bubbles the chimp (YES REALLY). And that’s before I’ve even mentioned the imminently punch-able main character, a sparkly-suited mime dude who kept popping up everywhere with an intensely irritating grin and various popping-and-locking filler antics… the theatrical equivalent of that annoying party guest who just never leaves.
Mostly though, it was a night of lost opportunities – that much became crystal-clear when a grainy three-minute clip of 11 year-old Jackson singing I’ll Be There proved more engaging than most of the on-stage performances. All too often, dull acts writhed around to even duller songs to disguise set changes (gyrating lizard lady on Is It Scary, I’m looking at you… and silver mime dude, I’m looking at you even harder) when a nostalgic video clip could have probably done the job better – especially as the awesome 3D-esque video screens, cleverly splicing archive MJ footage with new video clips, were one of the most impressive aspects of Immortal and could have been used even more.
An eagerly anticipated Thriller – where the crowd actually started cheering before anything had even happened on-stage – largely fell flat, choosing to dispense with nearly all the iconic dance moves for elaborate costumes and silly bat acrobatics (seriously, watch 13 Going On 30 for a more affectionate Thriller sequence). And lest we forget Earth Song, which my friend Kate described as the bikini wax of MJ records – ‘You know it’s coming, but it’s still just as painful’.
Similarly, with a back catalogue as all-out AMAZING as Michael Jackson’s, quite how the final set-list came into fruition remains to be seen. Meh songs like Childhood, Is It Scary and Dancing Machine went on for an interminable length of time whilst Billie Jean – arguably the greatest pop song of all time – was reduced to a couple of bars (and The Jackson 5 medley went mysteriously missing from our performance too). The result was a show that never really felt like it was firing on all cylinders; instead, every time it seemed on the cusp of taking flight, along came another energy-sapping sequence to drain the momentum.
Until the finale and encore, of course. I’ve lost count of the number of mediocre stage shows that have been saved by barnstorming finales and Immortal was no exception. Put together the epic combination of Can You Feel It, Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, Billie Jean, Black Or White and Man In The Mirror, add some wow-worthy light-up suits, hats, ties and gloves, top it with the fact that silver mime dude is going to disappear from your life for good, and you just cannot fail. It’s just a shame that the party couldn’t have properly started two hours ago.
Overall, given the fantastic production values, talented cast and gold-plated source material, it’s a diverting enough two hours – but it’s the fact that all those elements are there, just not in the right balance, that ultimately makes Immortal quite so disappointing.
Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour by Cirque du Soleil, 23-25 August 2013 at Asia World-Expo, Hong Kong; tickets cost $288-1288