“MJ-The Musical”, Has Really Got ‘Somethin Started’ In Denver, LLD Review

Roman Banks as 'MJ' and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Joe Contreras, Latin Life Denver Media. (see video trailer below)

“It is hard if not impossible to fill the shoes of the iconic “King of Pop” Michael Jackson. So how successfully could a play about his career from childhood notoriety to his rise to legendary superstardom be pulled off with any degree of convincing reality?

We have all seen many Michael Jackson impersonators and like Elvis impersonators they are interesting but often fall far short of the real thing. Throw in acting, dancing along with sounding and conveying the emotions of Michael Jackson from his early days with the Jackson 5 to his “Dangerous World Tour” and you have taken on nearly an impossible task.

Roman Banks as ‘MJ’ and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

But with tons of award winning Broadway talent on all levels of production from the acting, choreography, scenic design, costumes to the live orchestra MJ-The Musical is a complete success. It is “spot on” as they say, in most every way possible.

The Denver Center for the Performing Arts again has the privilege of debuting a major Broadway touring production, thru April 28, 2024. Denver has become the launching pad for several Broadway touring productions including The Book of Mormon and Pippin. Disney’s Frozen and The Little Mermaid debuted in Denver before they made it big on Broadway. Now, it’s MJ-The Musical’s turn.

 Roman Banks as ‘MJ’ and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

“Going into the theatre, I really had to temper my expectations. It is hard for anyone to fill Michael Jackson’s shoes, so I wasn’t expecting all that” said Tony Kovaleski, an investigative reporter for Channel 7. “I did not expect to see or experience the exceptional performance I witnessed. This production really pulled it off in convincing fashion,” he said.

I could not have agreed more with Kovaleski, a former colleague during my time at Denver’s 7. I was late getting into the theatre thanks to closure of one of the main parking entrances so I was not in good mood at the onset and was just expecting a Vegas style production. Nothing to really write home about. (allow an extra 20 minutes for parking). I could not have been more wrong.

 Devin Bowles as ‘Rob’ and Roman Banks as ‘MJ’ in the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy

When I finally got to my seat the stage was filled with people in rehearsal mode. They are practicing the choreography for the upcoming Dangerous World Tour that took place in 1992. Michael Jackson’s character, played by Roman Banks, actually, there are four Michael Jackson actors in the show with often more than one on stage at the same time. Michaels: Brandon Lee Harris plays him as a teen and young man, while Josiah Benson (alternating with Bane Griffith) portrays Little Michael.

 Roman Banks as ‘MJ’ and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade.

Jackson wants perfection and will settle for nothing less. “lf they cant cut it we will find dancers that will” he tells his manager. Jackson fantasizes about being catapulted from underneath the stage six feet in the air and landing on a platform at that height.

There is an MTV crew constantly following Jackson around the stage documenting his efforts to create a concert that he believes would be his crowning achievement. They want to capture his creative process while prying into his personal being.

Roman Banks as ‘MJ’ and Mary Kate Moore as ‘Rachel’ in the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

It’s August 13, 1967 and the Jackson 5 win Amateur Night at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and the attention of Motown Records. It is an event that would shape Jackson’s quest for success and approval. The early songs are all there, ‘I want you back’, ‘Dancing Machine’, ‘Blame It On The Boogie’, and others.

 Jaylen Lyndon Hunter as Little Marlon Ethan Joseph as Little Michael and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Soon the story of Jackson’s life is unveiled. We are taken back to his childhood. His relationship with his overbearing and domineering father, Joe Jackson, played by Devin Bowles, is brought to light as he pushes his sons, the Jackson 5, beyond their limits constantly pressing/disciplining them to do better. Anastasia Talley is the Jackson matriarch, Katherine Jackson, she is sympathetic to her sons treatment by their father but looks the other way when it comes to his abusive manipulations.

Josiah Benson as ‘Little Michael’ and Anastasia Talley as ‘Katherine Jackson’ in the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Barry Gordy, Motown, Don Cornelius of Soul Train fame, Record producer Quincy Jones are all paid homage in the form of look alike guest appearances.

Then we’re back to the rehearsal studio, the MTV reporter, Rachel (Mary Kate Moore) is asking unrelenting questions pushing Michael to reveal more than he cares to reveal. “Listen to my music, the answers to all your questions are there” he tells her. Michael’s financial manager is deeply concerned about cost overruns in producing such an extravagant show and tries to temper Jackson’s ambitions. Michael is not having any of it and will risk everything to make the Dangerous World Tour happen.

Brandon Lee Harris as ‘Michael’ and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade.

The flashbacks continue to Jackson’s early career, his bouts with painkillers after his hair catching fire during the filming of a Pepsi commercial. Jackson reminisces about the challenges he had overcome to be the musical superstar of his day. In 1983, Michael Jackson became the first black artist to achieve significant airtime on MTV. The making of Thriller was another challenge. The Thriller dance number comes off as almost a haunting of Jackson’s past. The demons that pursued him. The show does not deal with the pedophile suspicions Jackson endured, nor with his death. Only his struggles with pain killers.

MJ-The Musical is two and half hours long. Following an intermission, act ll begins with a tribute Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse and the Nicholas Brothers and influence they had on Jackson’s dancing talent. The Moonwalk, his infamous ‘crotch grab’. I may have missed it but I did not see ‘the anti-gravity lean’. But the hits are all there. 40 in all, although some include the Soul Train Theme, and James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’.

MJ, The Musical is diffidently a treat to be had. Most likely you will be joining fellow audience members hooting, howling and fighting to stay in your seat while becoming a “Dancing Machine”.

Jesse Estrada-Segura, told Latin Life Denver, “Saw it in NY as well and will be going again on the last day it’s here! That’s how great it is! Definitely worth seeing more than once!” I also am looking forward to seeing it more than once.

At the Buell Theatre, 14th and Curtis streets in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Through April 28, 2024. 303-893-4100.