“MJ” at Prince Edward Theatre

Mark Shenton in the West End
1 April 2024

Known as the “King of Pop”, Michael Jackson has cast a long and complicated shadow over the entertainment universe that he reigned over for about four decades.


Photo credit: Johan Persson.


He first emerged as a child star fronting the Jackson 5 with his four older brothers, before becoming a global superstar in his own right, until his far too premature death, aged just 50, in 2009, just as he was rehearsing for another global tour. By then, his personal life had become a source of much speculation and multiple lawsuits, in which he faced allegations of inappropriate relationships with minors.

This new bio-musical is conveniently set in 1992, as he prepares for his Dangerous tour – a year before those allegations first surfaced. The production is presented “by arrangement with the Michael Jackson estate”, meaning it is fully authorized, so it’s hardly surprising that the darker sides of the man’s reputation (beyond his changing skin colour) go unmentioned.

Two-times Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s script does, however, seek to include other critical areas of his life, including a quick dismissal of his frequent bouts of plastic surgery (“Who in Hollywood doesn’t?” is his answer), his deeply troubled relationship with his bullying, demanding father, and his own perfectionist demands on others, including himself.

Framed by a two-person MTV crew who are following rehearsals for that 1992 tour, it allows MJ to be regularly interviewed onstage, and also – via overheard conversations – to touch on his dependencies for painkiller drug medications that started after he was injured filming a commercial, and would ultimately claim his life. But that’s about as honest and revealing as the show gets, which is to say: not much.

Premiered on Broadway in 2022, it won four Tony Awards including for its star Myles Frost as the adult Michael (there are also two younger versions of him in the show, played by child actors), who is now reprising his phenomenal performance in the West End: he is the propulsive, kinetic centre of the production, summoning the energy and channelling the charisma of the man, but also the sense of strange, unknowable mystery in his muted speaking voice and apparent childlike fragility.

A previous West End revue called Thriller Live devoted to Jackson’s repertoire (with perfunctory, mostly sycophantic narration on his life) ran for almost 12 years at the Lyric on Shaftesbury Avenue. During its run, Jackson died and the theatre and show itself became an informal shrine for the fans, and became the 20th longest-running show in London. (It ended up having its run finally terminated by the arrival of the Covid pandemic.)

That show had an engagingly end-of-pier quality that made it hark back to the Jackson 5’s beginnings on amateur nights at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, but at least it delivered the wall-to-wall hits. This show is in a different league of slick Broadway professionalism altogether, put together by practitioners at the very top of their game.

They are led by director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, the British-born but New York-based ballet choreographer, who previously also helmed the ravishing stage version of another dance-based show An American in Paris that transferred from Paris to Broadway to the West End’s Dominion, where it was seen in 2017. He retains all the trademark Jackson moves (staged by Rich + Tone Talauega) but embeds them in a production that is full of a sense of constantly exhilarating movement.

Derek McLane’s designs are mostly set it in a large rehearsal studio, with exciting projections by Peter Nigrini sometimes taking us out of and beyond it, most notably when we enter the vividly realized landscapes of music videos for the dark re-creation of songs like “Thriller”. Natasha Katz’s lighting frames it all to frequently dazzling effect.

But the biggest treat is to hear this sublime pop repertoire performed live again, under the stewardship of musical director Sean Green, and thanks to the crystalline sound of Gareth Owen.

I’ve heard of one publication refusing to review the show on the basis of not wanting to celebrate or endorse Jackson in any way. But his legions of fans will undoubtedly feel differently and will flock to this show for years to come.