If the new Cirque du Soleil tribute to Michael Jackson, “Immortal,” confirms one thing, it’s that the King of Pop’s presence, even in death, sure can rile up a crowd. Every time the late singer’s image popped on-screen during the show’s Las Vegas premiere on Saturday night, whether as a tyke with a golden voice as part of the Jackson 5 or as a Thriller with a sequined glove and a miraculous body for dance, the sold-out venue erupted, if only for a snapshot moment.
But clips of Jackson being MJ, however magnetic, can’t sustain an hour-and-a-half show dedicated to his music, nor can a dancing Bubbles the chimpanzee, big-Afroed J5 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-sized dancing glove that looked more like a half-dead starfish.
The Canadian-based Cirque du Soleil has built an empire choreographing discographies in service of its high-flying human, wire and light tricks. Over nearly three decades, the company has constructed visual extravaganzas that have taken Las Vegas, and the world, by storm, and have helped nudge the look and feel of big arena concerts into the realm of visual, as well as sonic, spectacle.
There are eight Cirque-produced shows running in Vegas (and 15 others playing throughout the world), and three of them are themed around musicians: Elvis Presley’s memory is celebrated in “Viva Elvis,” the Beatles oeuvre in “Love” and through Dec. 27, the collected work of Michael Jackson will be presented at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, where, after touring the world, “Immortal” will set up a permanent home in 2013.
As anyone who remembers Jackson’s lavish Las Vegas spending spree that was featured in journalist Martin Bashir’s damning 2003 documentary, Jackson had an affinity for the city’s brand of gauche, and Vegas was only too happy to cash his checks. So it’s only natural that his image and music be licensed for glitzy ridiculousness. Plus, he earned the money, the fame and the acclaim through dance, one of Vegas’ perennial attractions, through his exacting choreography in videos like “Thriller,” “Beat It” and “Billie Jean.” There’s a lot of great material to work with.
Which is why this thing is such a drag. Directed by Jamie King, best known as Madonna’s longtime collaborator, and choreographed by Travis Payne, who worked with Jackson on and off for the last 15 years of the singer’s life, “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 aforementioned 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. The writers of “The Simpsons” couldn’t have imagined a more ridiculous parody of Vegas overindulgence.
“Love,” like “Immortal,” had as its director of creation Chantal Tremblay, but where the former felt like one long, graceful meditation on the melodies of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr, the latter feels like an impatient, see-what-sticks mishmash crafted by someone way more interested in Jackson’s Hallmark-worthy slow songs, the stuff from his increasingly infantilized later work, than spreading groove and getting a move on. Every time a burst of energy arrives, it’s quickly interrupted by one of Jackson’s lesser ballads or late-period bangers. How can you justify giving more time and creative energy to “Man in the Mirror” and “Earth Song” in a Michael Jackson show than to “Beat It” or “Thriller”? There was only buried-at-the-end tidbit of “Billie Jean” within “Immortal,” a song whose rolling bassline seems tailor made for an extended interpretation.
Maybe it’s just too soon; it was only last week, after all, that Jackson’s doctor was sentenced after being convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the singer’s death. But the problem isn’t timing as much as it is structure.
“Love,” though flawed, had a flow to it, felt of a piece, and used as much vertical as horizontal space, with high-wire artists and dancers moving not only across the stage but within the vast air above. The problem with “Immortal” is Mandalay Bay’s 12,000-seat Events Center: it’s a big arena, and the requirements of this touring version of the show dictated portability.
Tremblay and King opted to configure the space with the main stage at one end, where a halfway hidden band performed on a riser behind massive projection screens. Two catwalk-length motorized conveyors led to a smaller circular space in the middle of the floor, where much of the aerial activity was launched. Unlike “Love,” where the crowd feels a part of the action, “Immortal” felt like a concert without an artist, like that classic “Saturday Night Live” parody of Elvis opportunism, a live tour called “Elvis Presley’s Coat.”
The surest sign that work on the overall approach needs to be addressed before the show returns for an indefinite run in 2013 was the crowd’s response. Aside from the raucous section of MJ fan club members who seemed to love the show, and the times when video of Jackson was projected onto the screen, the crowd wasn’t really feeling it. Near the end, when the band — whose role and participation were vague considering that the show featured a lot of studio tracks — threw their hands in the air and invited participation, the crowd just sat there, uninterested in joining.
What this all means for the long-term life of the show is to be determined. Michael Jackson, after all, was the King of Pop. His creative spirit earned him a spot on the Vegas strip to dance among the myriad imitators and inheritors who have channeled his moves. His moonwalk and his voice have proved so enduring that, for now, generations of fans will buy tickets with the same enthusiasm that Jackson did when accumulating gaudy vases. But it takes only a few consecutive duds to damage a legacy, and if “Immortal” is the best they can do, the show’s title will end up sounding sadly ironic.