As a child of the 80’s, the scandal surrounding Michael Jackson in the past 15 or so years is a high publicity decimation of a pop culture icon. I was never a huge fan (I can quote you the Weird Al parodies for “Bad” and “Beat it” far more easily than the original) but I don’t deny the man’s talent and like a number of the big hits.
Unfortunately, the truly big “everybody knows these songs backwards, forwards, and sideways” hits are about an hour of music. Thriller Live is two and a half hours and four of the songs everybody expects (Thriller/Bad/Billie Jean/Black or White) and wants to hear are the finale/encore. That leaves quite a bit of time for second and third tear material from the Jackson disco catalogue and the ballads nobody remembers or cares about.
Again, I’m finding myself saying “nice cast, shame about the play.” Ben Forster is simply amazing as one of the show’s many singers, and if there’s any justice in the world will be playing Galileo in WWRY. Denise Pearson is also a standout singer, as are Ricko Baird and Earl Perkins. Ashton Russell was on as young Michael when I saw the show and stood out in the opposite direction, failing to stay in key and looking as bored as I often felt. The dance ensemble were universally talented and genuinely hard workers performing the brutal choreography associated with Jackson’s videos and stage shows.
And then there’s the design. While Jonathan Park’s set is passably functional and Adrian Gwilliam’s costumes appropriately fun, Nigel Catmur’s lighting is an abomination worthy of the pits of theatrical hell. I get that no, this is not traditional theatre (well, it is in a way...) but more a concert and as such will rely on more concert styled lighting. Get it, got it, no problem with it. But it’s bad concert lighting (ya know?) with an overhead ring throwing LED everywhere but on the stage and the production relies heavily on lightboard animations (including one during “The Man in the Mirror” that takes us through MJ’s many faces before showing John Lennon, JFK, a host of other historical figures, and finally Barack Obama) which are bright, constantly moving, and in many cases look like primitive GIF files. There’s also an excessive use of oversized flashbulb (painful if you’re off to the sides and therefore find yourself angled towards where they pop) and enough driving, unrelenting fast colour changes to rival Priscilla for most painful visuals in the West End.
And before anybody asks, no, I’m not epleptic, and no, I’m not generally photosensitive. I can go clubbing, watch strobe heavy 80’s anime, and stare at monitors all day and still not suffer eyestrain or headache, but I found myself closing my eyes for minutes of respite at Thriller. If they JUST had the latter aspects of the lighting, it would have gotten a sentence here and I’d have moved on, but the sheer in your face quantity of LED bothers me not just for its physical effect, but also its artistic one: this is a concert full of hit tunes sung by talented singers with legendary choreography. So why try to distract everybody by showing all kinds of flashy crap in the background? Have some faith in your material and performers let them speak for themselves. You know, like in Shout (which I also revisited yesterday and still enjoyed.)
Where: Lyric Theatre Shaftesbury
When: Tu-Fr, Su @ 19:30, Sa @ 16:00 & 20:00, Su @ 15:30
How Much: £23.50-£54.50
Concessions: Best available for £20
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £10. Add £5 for every MJ CD you have that isn’t Bad or Thriller.
RZ Other Notes: First and foremost, this was my first visit to the Lyric Shaftesbury and it’s a truly beautiful theatre, both architecturally and in its decor. Second, the balcony and upper circle were closed last night so MJ fans may wish to consider buying cheap and aiming for a bump. Third, I recommend staying for the first 15 minutes and then bolting to the bar until the second half when all of the songs that matter are played.