LAS VEGAS — Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino’s fake beach and wave pool were the site of the June 30 opening-night party for “Michael Jackson One,” the latest Cirque du Soleil creation, designed as an evocation of the music and spirit of the late King of Pop. Cirque is famous for its extravagant parties, which typically go on for hours. But on this occasion, news filtered in that there had been a serious accident just up the Strip at the MGM Grand, at “Ka,” one of Cirque’s most massive and artful creations.
Although most of the Mandalay Bay celebrators did not know it, an accident in one of the show’s thrilling battle scenes had led to the death of a performer, Sarah Guyard-Guillot, a 31-year-old mother of two.
No one had ever died while performing a Cirque show. The word here is that the Cirque leadership and staffers, who remain close-knit, were devastated by the death of Guyard-Guillot. The accident led to the temporary suspension of “Ka.” Performances resumed only last week.
That might explain why “Michael Jackson One” opened here with attention very much focused elsewhere, and that’s a shame, because it is a strikingly beautiful and emotional show. Indeed, “One,” created by Jamie King, who once danced alongside Jackson on his Dangerous world tour in 1992-93, is the first Cirque show in a long while to feel as if it has a heart. That crucial collective drive of vulnerability, wonder and striving for rebirth informed all the great early Cirque shows, especially those created by its early auteur, Franco Dragone. The return of an emotional personal vision is long overdue.
“One” began in a way last August with the demise of “Viva Elvis,” a Cirque show reflecting its newfound interest in working with the estates of iconic celebrities. Not only was “Elvis” bland and unimaginative, but audiences at the high-end Aria Hotel and Casino responded with a yawn.
Enter “Michael Jackson One,” not to be confused with “Michael Jackson the Immortal World Tour,” a separate Cirque show also based on the life and works of Jackson that has been playing arenas around the world. Although a hit at the box office, “Immortal” is a massive, cool-to-the-touch hagiography that captures Jackson’s thirst for the kinetic and the spectacular but seems to crush his gentle spirit and confusing legacy with video, volume, freneticism and fireworks.
King’s far superior and infinitely more personal piece at Mandalay Bay is a whole different beast.
Indeed, it contains a beast at its center: a roving man-and-machine with arms made up of cameras, headlines, flashbulbs and probing tentacles. When you add the projected tabloid images on the walls of the theater that greet the audience as it enters, you grasp that the show has an antagonist not unlike the one that pursued Jackson himself. By contrast, the representations of Jackson are fleeting, flickering and fragile.
The notion of Jackson rendered in twinkling lights and inhabiting the Milky Way will sound cloying to the controversial late star’s detractors, but then such people are not the target audience. And to King’s credit, he doesn’t deify so much as evoke with arresting fullness that familiar Jacksonian worldview — that instantly recognizable, inherently unworkable blend of softness, horror, urbanity and escape. The Jackson of “One” captures that wildly singular fusion of childhood innocence and pulp stardom.
It is a show that makes you miss the man and his art. In its best moments, it makes you wonder what aspects of him ever really touched the Earth.
“One” is a remarkable sonic experience. There are 5,800 speakers installed in the theater, including at least three in every seat, creating an experience that certainly can’t be re-created in arenas. The mixes of the Jackson hits are based on original recordings, but they have been infused by music director Kevin Antunes with theatricality. There are unexpected pauses, mash-ups, stutters, reaches.
The take on “Bad,” performed against a backdrop of a graffiti-clad moving subway car with original Jackson video playing off to the side, is especially resonant in that it contextualizes Jackson’s music against a stark, brutal picture of the big U.S. cities of the 1980s, before mayors started cleaning them up and the yuppies moved back. It’s an arresting little meditation on what the weird man was up against back then with all his talk of reconciliation and wonder.
King uses a frame: a quartet of initially cynical youthful explorers in street clothes slowly being immersed and empowered by Jackson’s world. It’s not a wildly original device but it is executed very well by King and it allows for an eye-popping final moment when 50 or so dancers we’ve watched do “Bad,” “Thriller” and “Beat It” disappear en masse into the floor, even as their guiding Jackson spirit heads for the rafters.
Mostly by not fearing ambiguity, King pulls off what surely read in description as hokey devices.
There’s one such moment, which will be what most people carry home from their costly 90 minutes, when Jackson (who is never impersonated in the show directly) appears in hologram-like form, dancing alongside the company, only to transform into his younger self from Gary, Ind., then to disappear without warning into a puff of digitized smoke, leaving the other dancers sad and confused.
It’s an eye-popping trick, worth the price of admission. Aside from wondering how they did that with such realism, you get an existential shiver or two. It’s certainly a moment that plays with an icon’s immortality, which is what a lot of Jackson fans want, but it’s just removed enough that it does not so much feel as if Jackson has been reborn as he has taken the form of ghostly dancing, not so different from the visions that ennobled and terrified Scrooge. People’s mouths fall open.
The sensation is, as anything sensational about Jackson always should be, complex. And complexity coupled with heart is the only way to bring a grieving Cirque back.