When he departed this world unexpectedly in June 2009, Michael Jackson left behind a catalog of revered music and some unfinished business.
Just two weeks before he was to launch “This Is It,” a run of 50 live shows at the O2 Arena in London, Jackson died at his home in Los Angeles. “This Is It” would have been Jackson’s first series of live performances since the History Tour in 1996-97. All 50 shows sold out, and the concerts were billed as the greatest comeback ever.
Four months after his death, the documentary “This Is It” showed Jackson and his crew rehearsing for the tour at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The film conveyed what would have been the breathtaking and dynamic opulence of that show and Jackson’s keen involvement in its every phase and detail.
It also showed just how well Jackson, 50, had preserved his world-class talents, especially his singing and dancing. But the movie could not generate the kind of spirit a live show would have inspired. Nor could it quell demand for some kind of public celebration of Jackson and his music.
In November 2010, with the cooperation of Jackson’s estate, Cirque du Soleil announced it was developing “Michael Jackson: The ‘Immortal’ World Tour,” a $60 million arena-sized mash-up of Jackson’s music and legend with Cirque’s world-renowned twist on circus entertainment and all its dynamic and high-flying panache.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the tour stops at the Sprint Center.
“It starts with the music,” choreographer Jamie King, who wrote and directed the two-hour show, said on the “Immortal” website. “I have the opportunity to carry on Michael’s legacy, to take that energy and all that was and was going to be and put it on our show.”
The world just got a big dose of what King is capable of: He directed this year’s extravagant Super Bowl halftime show featuring Madonna. He has also directed several of Madonna’s tours as well as tours by Britney Spears, Rihanna and Christina Aguilera. The show’s choreographer is Travis Payne, who had worked with Jackson since the early 1990s.
Beyond the music, King said, the show was designed to be a “journey into Michael’s head, Michael’s world. It’s very much a hybrid, meaning theatrical show meets what we know of Michael. I’m making sure the audience gets exactly what they remember from Michael, which is the iconic looks from his music videos.
“The show is a reflection of Michael’s energy, his essence and his spirit.”
At the Immortal website, the show’s musical designer Michael Antunes said, “Michael’s voice from the original master recordings is what drives the show, period. And everything else is created around that.”
“Immortal” features a legion of dancers, aerialists, acrobats and musicians, a few tides and torrents of costumes and special effects and symbols of Jackson’s life, both living and inanimate (his fellow Jackson 5 members, his famous glove), all re-created and represented with some lavish artistic license.
Here’s how the Los Angeles Times described some of the elements of “Immortal”: “a dancing Bubbles the chimpanzee; big-Afroed Jackson 5 impersonators; a baffling mid-show cello solo; a sexy contortionist act atop a children’s book; groups of synchronized mummies in hoop skirts and, most curiously, a life-size dancing glove that looked more like a half-dead starfish ”
The show is getting universal praise for its extravagance, but reviews of its cohesion, its themes and some of its refinements have been spotty.
Here’s a sample of reviews of the tour, which opened Oct. 2 in Montreal:
•From the Montreal Gazette
’s review of opening night: “This is a dazzling, fast-pace spectacle for people with short attention spans, flitting from one song to the next, seldom settling down with one for a whole number. All is deftly rearranged, using live music and Jackson’s recorded voice. The audience is overwhelmed with images, some of them on screens, others created through manipulation of quirky props, like a mega-sized white glove, a huge Jackson hat that conceals several dancers or a pair of giant shoes and socks, with dancers inside.”
•From the San Francisco Chronicle :
“In typical Cirque fashion, the costumes, set designs, cutting-edge projection technology, fireworks and light show surpassed expectations. And to see Jackson’s signature moves performed by a legion of dancers while Jackson oversees from footage projected above is delightful, if not a bit morbid.
“The acrobatic duo’s aerial ballet to ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’ was one highlight. Which goes to show that when Cirque just did what they do best — using Jackson’s songs as a soundtrack to show off talent plucked from all over the planet — it was perfection. It was when they attempted literal interpretations of Jackson’s lyrics that things went south.
“Feeling more red-light district than circus, the adult moments, like the scantily clad pole dancer who performed to ‘Dangerous,’ garnered the biggest cheers. But like the gigantic baby MJ puppet and the dancer flopping around in a sparkly glove outfit, the childhood-chasing, kid-friendly moments proved most disappointing.”
•From the Los Angeles Times:
“ ‘Immortal’ is a two-dimensional mixtape that, were it relocated to a hockey arena, could be easily adapted as ‘Michael Jackson on Ice.’ Filled with Vegas cheese, oddly chosen MJ spoken-word interludes, ill-advised song-and-dance combos — the silliest of which involves a little human dressed as Bubbles pretending to be a DJ while men swing on rings below — the production never feels like it ever gets going, and any narrative is quickly sacrificed in service of another requisite series of swinging maneuvers.
“During ‘Beat It,’ at the same time the human-sized sequined hand wriggled on the ground, a hot female cellist and equally sexy female guitarist moved slowly on a conveyor belt wailing, and two jumbo white-socks-and-black-loafer props, with men stuffed in them, hopped in place.”
•From USA Today:
“(Cirque’s) trademark whimsy and splashes of surreal were applied generously throughout, with a five-man dancing clown group, a liquid-limber mime and a costumed chimp Bubbles as main characters. The show often seemed caught between multiple minds, never quite sure where to commit its energies. Athletic group dance numbers (‘Scream’) mingled with cinematic sequences (the robot army of ‘They Don’t Care About Us’) amid vintage Cirque fare, including the gorgeous aerial ballets of ‘Human Nature’ and ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.’ ”
Despite the reviews, the tour is succeeding financially.
According to Pollstar, the online trade magazine for the live-music industry, “Immortal” was the 16th top-grossing tour in North America in 2011. According toVenuesToday.com
, another live-music trade site, the tour grossed $10.3 million during a 10-show, four-city sweep of California in late January, making it the top-grossing tour that week. Average attendance was more than 9,000 per show.
In November, the tour canceled shows in Spokane, Wash., and Eugene and Portland, Ore. According to Venues Today, a combined 13,000 attended the two other shows in Portland; only 3,900 attended the one other show in Eugene. Shows scheduled for 2012 in Milwaukee and Salt Lake City have also been canceled.
The tour says the cancellations are because of the size and complexity of the show: “Cirque du Soleil has cited that the time it takes to move the production into a facility, and the time it takes to move out of a facility, has conflicted with travel time between cities on the tour. These unforeseen issues are due in part to the overall size of the production.”
Or it could be that demand simply isn’t high enough to fill an arena two or three nights in a row.
Tickets for the Sprint Center shows start at $50 and go to $175. At Ticketmaster.com this week, tickets were available in four consecutive seats at every level, including the floor, for both shows at the Sprint Center.
Like the critics, fans have been split on whether “Immortal” was worth the money they spent on it.
At the San Francisco Chronicle’s website, SFGate, one fan commented: “I would not recommend this show to anyone. It was a huge disappointment and does not compare to normal Cirque du Soleil shows.”
But another wrote: “While I agree that it was a bit disjointed at times, it was an amazing tribute to one of the most extraordinary and gifted artists of our time. The music and visuals alone and just experiencing the spirit of Michael were worth the price of admission.”