REVIEW: Thriller Live – The Michael Jackson tribute crying out for reinvention

Thriller UK Tour: Photo thrillerlive.com

Venue: The Alexandra, Birmingham

Performance Date: 03 June 2019

Star Rating: ★★ 

Despite the controversy and unwanted headlines that plagued him during his life, and that haven’t abated since his premature death in 2009, the enduring strength of Michael Jackson’s musical legacy is undeniable. Still widely regarded as the undisputed King of Pop, Michael Jackson enjoyed unparalleled worldwide success and, thanks to his influence and constant reinvention, he remains one of the best-selling music artists of all time.

Thriller Live! was scheduled to run at London’s Lyric Theatre from 21 January to 16 May 2009, having been extended around the time of Jackson’s death, the show’s popularly sky-rocketed propelling it to its current position of fourteenth longest running musical in the West End, having played over 4000 performances.

The main problem with this touring production is that it never quite elevates itself from a tribute show. Indeed, several component parts are strong – the band, for example, led by Musical Director and keyboardist Andy Jeffcoat, are outstanding and guitarists Rob Minns and Allan Salmon particularly shine and do incredible justice to Jackson’s iconic back catalogue.

Gone is the part of the young Michael, played by a young actor in the West End production, who is replaced by a video played above the stage. Unfortunately, this omission is detrimental, missing the point and importance of Jackson’s early career in the Jackson 5.

One of the main issues is the lack of narrative. Many jukebox musicals sacrifice a strong story in order to shoehorn in their subject’s back catalogue, but Thriller Live! doesn’t even try. At least the chronology of Jackson’s career remains constant taking the audience through his early work in Motown, to disco and his ultimate signature sounds of the Thriller and Off the Wall albums. In the absence of a plotline, we are left with a frenetic concert-style tribute show, showcasing Jackson’s iconic hits over the course of two acts, delivered by five vocalists including Kieran Alleyne playing the man himself.

Alleyne does have some Thriller Live! pedigree, he played the young Jackson in the London production aged 13 and is the only performer to be asked back to play the adult Michael. You can’t deny that he is an incredibly dynamic performer; he completely embodies all of Jackson’s mannerisms, style, signature dance moves and is vocally comparable. An incredibly accomplished dancer, he moonwalks with ease and owns the stage any time he is on it.

The remaining four vocalists, made up of Rory Taylor, Ina Seidou, Nick James and Resident Director Britt Quentin are solid in their performances and do justice to Jackson’s diverse portfolio. Seidou, in particular, has a fine voice and delivers the numbers with authority, style and enviable vocal placement. Taylor, a finalist on ITV’s Superstar is an equally accomplished performer and his rendition of Jackson’s ballad, She’s out of My Life is one of the highlights of a jam-packed first act, which contains an astonishing 22 numbers. James does well to try and entice the rather sparse Alexandra audience to participate in a rendition of Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground) and his enthusiasm is infectious. Kudos has to go to Quentin who clearly revels in his role on stage and is perhaps the most closely comparable vocalist to Jackson.

Gary Lloyd’s choreography in the main is in line with Jackson’s major and most memorable dance sequences but the clearly talented ensemble just don’t seem up for it. The numbers seem laboured, lack synchronicity and cohesion making it feel clunky and arduous. They also randomly whoop and cheer all the way through which is both unnecessary and off-putting. In addition, the staging feels tired and outdated with its blinding LED lighting design. As Jackson’s solo career gained momentum so did the rise and popularity of the music video and, unfortunately, the staging and lighting simply don’t do them justice.

There is light at the end of the tunnel as the show builds to its crescendo (and not because it is nearing the end) in the form of arguably Jackson’s biggest hits. Billie Jean, Thriller, Bad and Black or White are performed with the energy that should have been present from the first number. Gary Lloyd’s choreography is on the money during these dance sequences including the iconic Thriller zombie moves. The elevation of these moments goes some way to making up for what has gone before them.

If Thriller Live! is going to endure it needs some serious reinvention. The Alexandra Theatre was less than half full which is never good to see. Despite the controversy that continues to surround Michael Jackson, his staunch and loyal fans remain and they really deserve a better legacy to his music. Perhaps it’s time to take the bull by the horns and create a proper Michael Jackson biographical musical, you only need to take a look at the likes of Tina The Musical, and the buzz surrounding the imminent UK premiere of Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s On Your Feet. If left in its current form it’s hard to see Thriller Live! either enduring or reaching the heights of its earlier success, despite the strength of the legacy inspiring it.

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