MF IN MJ By Peter Filichia
There will be those who’ll automatically say, “If I want to listen to Michael Jackson, I’ll listen to Michael Jackson himself. Why would I buy a cast album with all the songs he made famous only to hear them sung by other people?”
There’s another way of looking at the situation. The power of the original cast album of MJ THE MUSICAL is hearing how well three entertainers have captured the much-beloved super-superstar.
Imitation isn’t merely the sincerest form of flattery; it can be mighty entertaining for its own sake. After all, we’ve applauded all those expert SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE impersonators from Dana Carvey to Jay Pharoah, from Tina Fey to Chloe Fineman. Long before they took the stage and small screen, Rich Little was adept at imitating politicians, and Frank Gorshin was giving excellent photocopies of stage and screen personalities.
So why not be impressed when musical impersonators do it, too?
Christian Wilson portrays Little Michael during his years with The Jackson 5. Frankly, Wilson is not the only one who expertly replicates the past with “The Love You Save,” “I Want You Back” and “ABC.” You’ll find that the other 80% of the group – thanks to Devin Trey Campbell, John Edwards, Apollo Levine and Lamont Walker II – do their exemplary part, too.
Tavon Olds-Sample plays Middle Michael, detailing the years immediately following his leaving the group to forge his own career. And yet, Lynn Nottage’s book found a way so that he and Myles Frost – The Adult Michael – could duet on some of Jackson’s most beloved songs, including “Blame It on the Boogie” and “Dancing Machine.” These vocal doppelgangers welcome us to falsettoland, where Jackson always felt right at home. Their take on “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” is dynamic enough to make us understand why this was, for a while, the title of the musical.
Olds-Sample does especially well with “You Can’t Win,” a song from the 1978 film version of THE WIZ. Songwriter Charlie Smalls had won a Best Original Score Tony for the 1974-75 Tony-winning Best Musical, so he wasn’t automatically required to write something new for the film version. However, once Smalls learned that Jackson would play The Scarecrow, he created a new song specifically tailored to this unique talent.
Although the film was not a box office success, the song endures, and has been a part of many subsequent productions. In 2015, when THE WIZ LIVE! aired on NBC, “You Can’t Win” was included there, too.
For the rest of MJ THE MUSICAL, Frost carries the show. How uncanny he is in replicating Jackson’s wont to speak softly and carry a big talent. He growls his way through “Stranger in Moscow” to show the pain that Jackson had experienced. When the music starts for “Billie Jean,” vocal pyrotechnics soon follow. Frost shows he’s taken the advice in the first line of the chorus: “Be careful of what you do.” He’s very careful to imitate Jackson, but not routinely copy him. There is a difference.
Wonder what Frost feels every time he sings “Human Nature’s” lyric “If this town is just an apple, then let me take a bite.” He certainly did at the unripe age of 22 when he became the youngest ever to win the Best Actor in a Musical Tony.
A case could be made that it was always meant to be. When Frost was barely five, he was even then imitating Michael Jackson. True, kids do that type of thing all the time; however, one time when Frost did it on a boat, passengers were so impressed that they tossed coins and bills at him.
Needless to say, Frost is now making substantially more.
And to think it all started with HAIRSPRAY. A teacher at Frost’s high school – God bless teachers! – happened to overhear him playing the piano and wondered if he could sing as well.
Indeed, he could. Soon Frost was playing Seaweed in the now-classic musical, delivering a teacher-pleasing “Run and Tell That.” The sound of applause pleased him, too, and musical theater, which he barely had heard of, was suddenly on his radar.
And he is now on ours.
Frost’s Tony win was even more impressive when one considers his competition. Two months before MJ officially opened, Rob McClure was getting raves for his dual role in MRS. DOUBTFIRE; three months after MJ bared its wares to critics, another Broadway rookie was garnering huzzahs: Jaquel Spivey, playing Usher in A STRANGE LOOP.
And you can never count out Tony voters who like to go for The Veteran Big Names, a status for which Hugh Jackman (in THE MUSIC MAN) and Billy Crystal (in MR. SATURDAY NIGHT) easily qualify.
But it had to be Frost who is, you should pardon the expression, a thriller. In playing The King of Pop, Frost can make the claim that each boy in NEWSIES made: “I’m The King of New York.” Many times in the musical, Frost repeats Jackson’s often-heard complaint that what he just sang wasn’t perfect. You may well listen to Frost and say, “Well, you could have fooled me …”
Many who haven’t been able to get to the Neil Simon Theatre saw Frost’s magic on the Tonys this spring. His renditions of “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Smooth Criminal” obviously had an impact. MJ THE MUSICAL had been grossing 80%-95% for most of its run, but the week after the Tonys, it skyrocketed to 100%, where it’s been ever since. Last week it eclipsed the house record that it had set before.
Musical theater songs can be divided into diegetic and non-diegetic songs. The former has singers singing songs and are aware that they’re singing: Sally Bowles knows she’s doing “Cabaret” to Kit Kat Club customers.
The latter occurs when characters simply get so excited or emotional that they break into song. SpongeBob SquarePants doesn’t “know” he’s singing when he is out to convince his Bikini Bottom friends that it’s the “Best Day Ever.” It’s his enthusiasm that makes him break into song.
So, we expect a majority of diegetic songs in any jukebox. (And by the way – unlike so many jukebox musicals – MJ THE MUSICAL is one whose songs certainly were in jukeboxes, not to mention car CD and cassette players and home stereo units.)
But there’s one wonderful exception to the diegetic set-up that’s a genuine book number, one very smartly set up by Nottage. She knew that “I’ll Be There” could have been just another in-performance, but she grasped the opportunity to make it the most tender moment in the show.
Ayana George, playing Michael’s mother Katherine, assures her little boy in song that no matter what atrocities come his way (and some of them, to be frank, will come from his father), that she indeed will be there for him.
Here’s one instance on the album where imitation doesn’t apply. You don’t know what Katherine Jackson sounds like. But you will come to know what Ayana George sounds like, and that’s quite impressive, too.
The musical offers yet another mirror image. Just as Jackson, far more often than not, recorded for Epic (even as far back as The Jacksons), MJ THE MUSICAL’s original cast album is oh-so-fittingly on Epic Legacy. Here’s a case where “Accept no imitations” simply does not apply.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes and Disagreements can now be pre-ordered at Amazon.