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The King of Pop lives on

The King of Pop lives on

It’s a silly thing, really, the way celebrity deaths tend to affect us more than they should, as if it were a friend or a relative who had passed away. Still, to me and countless others, that’s what it felt like when news hit on June 25, 2009, that Michael Jackson had died. My first reflex was to call my mom to tell her about it, as if it were someone close to us that we had lost. Then again, maybe it was…

As long as I can remember, the King of Pop has been a part of my life. I was in born in 1980 after all, i.e., between the release of Off the Wall (1979) and Thriller (1982), when Jackson’s career was on its way to reaching its zenith, his songs and music videos becoming ubiquitous throughout the world. This kept up over the next decade or so, as the Bad (1987) and Dangerous (1991) albums followed. The MJ brand diminished after that, in part because of various scandals and allegations. Yet on that June 2009 day, those unfortunate things pretty much lost importance entirely, and it’s the amazing entertainer that we remembered fondly.

For better or worse, once he was gone, it’s like Michael Jackson suddenly regained all of his former glory. According to Billboard, he was the best-selling artist of 2009, with some 8.2 million albums sold in the United States alone of his back catalogue, the new Number Ones compilation and the soundtrack to the This Is It movie (which grossed more than $260-million in theatres worldwide). The year 2010 saw the release of a posthumous album, simply titled Michael, and of a video game, Michael Jackson: The Experience, which was developed by the good folks at Ubisoft.

And now Cirque du Soleil arrives with Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, a $60-million production that had its world premiere last Sunday at the Bell Centre, right here in Montreal, in front of a sold-out crowd that included three of the surviving Jackson 5 – Jackie, Marlon and Tito – along with their mother Katherine and Michael’s children, Prince, Paris and Blanket.

After an inauspicious start involving clowns and a mime, a fantastic video montage of excerpts from the music videos and live performances of Michael Jackson properly kicked things off, along with the reveal of the full scope of the set, notable features being the huge shape-shifting Giving Tree, the gilded gates of MJ’s Neverland Ranch and a catwalk that stretches all the way to a smaller round stage equipped with an elevating platform.

We then get a number set to the schmaltzy Childhood, featuring an animatronics puppet representing Michael as a kid, floating over the audience in a hot air balloon. Then things blow up to the sounds of Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, the first of many rousing showcases of the show’s large cast of dancers who, dressed in a multitude of gorgeously colourful costumes, execute a series of elaborate choreographies, often inspired by those of the late dancing machine. Meanwhile, Jackson’s original records blast through the arena, augmented by live musicians and backup singers, plus an impressive number of projections, lights and pyrotechnics.

Highlights include Human Nature, with acrobats in black bodysuits covered with blinking LED lights that change colours; Thriller, with mummies replacing the dancing zombies of the classic music video; I Just Can’t Stop Loving You, with a couple performing a straps duo high in the air; They Don’t Care About Us, with robot soldiers marching rhythmically; and the climactic Immortal Megamix of Can You Feel It, Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, Billie Jean and Black or White.

Not every number is a winner, the transitions aren’t always smooth and, by Cirque du Soleil standards, Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour is admittedly not as impressive, moving and magical as one could have hoped. Still, some stretches really work and the production as a whole is undeniably sumptuous. And in my book, you’ve got to love a show that features a guy in a perfectly convincing ape suit portraying Bubbles, MJ’s beloved pet chimp!

Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour will return to Montreal in 2012, March 20-22 and July 6-7.

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