Known for its visually-stunning productions combining music, dance, acrobatics and other feats, the company, in collaboration with the Estate of Michael Jackson, paid a memorable tribute to Jackson's legacy at the Scottrade Center last night.
This was the first Cirque du Soleil show I have seen live, and I was pleasantly surprised at the level of this production, with so many performers (more than 60) and moving parts. The stage was set at one end of the Scottrade, with an extension that spanned to nearly halfway across the floor area, with seats flanking it. Humongous video screens formed a background -- one of which actually lowered to become a part of the stage floor at times -- and a large riser spanning the back housed a complete band and back-up singers. Gilded gates modeled after those of Jackson's famed Neverland Ranch moved open and closed to frame various numbers, and a series of wires, rings and even a pole were moved in and out to accommodate acrobats. Smoke machines and pyrotechnics added to the drama.
At the time of Jackson's death in 2009, he was rehearsing for his comeback "This Is It" world tour, his biggest tour to date, which sold around 700,000 tickets in a mere four hours. Sadly, Jackson passed less than three weeks prior to the first tour date and fans would never see what surely would have been one of the biggest concert productions ever. A film version of "This Is It" compiled footage from tour rehearsals to give audiences a little taste of what might have been. As a life-long MJ fan, I feel that this Cirque du Soleil production really filled a bit of that void and provided some of the closure hardcore fans have been longing for since his death.
With the cooperation and blessing of the Jackson family and estate in its creation, this show seemed as appropriate a tribute to Michael's music, iconic style, and most importantly, his spirit, as could be created. For the show's 22 song numbers, Michael Jackson's original recorded vocals were isolated, then backed with a complete live band including drums, percussion, bass/guitar, saxophone and trumpet -- even an electric cello. Three talented backing vocalists supported Michael's own voice. With the first-rate choreography, costumes, videography and acrobats/guest performers, the result was something between a concert and a pop circus.
Standout performers included dancer Jean Sok, who amazingly has only one leg (his left being amputated above the knee) but uses a crutch to spin and whirl all over the stage; pole aerialist Anna Melnikova, defying gravity for "Dangerous" in a sparkling bikini; astounding contortionist Baaska Enkhbaatar, pushing the limits of human limberness; and aerial strap duo Luba Kazantseva and Igor Zaripov, providing a beautiful mid-air ballet to the tune of "I Just Can't Stop Loving You."
The first half of the show featured some of Jackson's early work including "Wanna Be Starting Something" and "Ben" as well as Jackson 5 hits like "Dancing Machine" and a fun medley of "ABC," "The Love You Save" and others. An opening montage focused on Michael's "lost" childhood backed by his intimate autobiographical song "Have You Seen My Childhood?" with photos of young Michael and fantasy images from Neverland Ranch filling the giant screens as Michael's voice repeated "It's been my fate to compensate for the childhood I've never known."
Flashier numbers like "This Place Hotel," "Smooth Criminal" and "Thriller" (complete with mummies shimmying across a graveyard to replicate the choreography of Jackson's greatest video) balanced out the emotion with dazzle and fun.
The second half (following a brief intermission) took off, driving to a crescendo with high-energy hits like "Beat It" (in which MJs iconic sparkle glove came to life on stage); basketball themed "Jam," environmental manifesto "Earth Song," space-age Ninja-style acrobatics themed "Scream," and "They Don't Care About Us," featuring video and choreography for the song from "This is It."
The show finally struck a truly emotional chord with "Will You Be There," during which a larger-than life image of Michael in a white suit was projected on a flowing sheet draped from the ceiling to the floor, seeming as an apparition as his voice spoke the painful final words of that song:
In our darkest hour, in my deepest despair, will you still care? Will you be there? In my trials and my tribulations, through our doubts and frustrations, in my violence, in my turbulence, through my fear and my confessions, in my anguish and my pain, through my joy and my sorrow, in the promise of another tomorrow, I'll never let you part, for you're always in my heart.
Needless to say, tears were falling. This was followed with the timeless Jackson 5 ballad "I'll Be There," as the ghost-image of the grown-up Michael was replaced by the cherub-like face of young Michael.
Not to end things on a somber note, however, the entire company took to the stage for a no-holds-barred mega mix of "Can You Feel It"/"Don't Stop ‘Till You Get Enough"/"Billie Jean"/"Black or White" as performers brought out flags representing the nations of the world. The grand finale focused on one of Jackson's most recognizable and socially-conscious songs, "Man in the Mirror," ending with a blast of pyrotechnics and a standing ovation, and leaving the audience remembering what perhaps was his most important message about being a catalyst for change and injustice in the world.
All in all, aside from the sheer spectacle, the show seemed an appropriate tribute -- and one that Michael himself might have enjoyed seeing, his soft brown eyes wide with wonder.
Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour continues through February 8 at the Scottrade Center.