Tokyo fans thrill to ‘Michaelism’

by Natsume Date

Special To The Japan Times

In England in 1999, after the huge success of the ABBA-songs show “Mamma Mia,” the theater scene became awash with “jukebox musicals.” From 2002′s reasonably successful Queen-based “We Will Rock You” and “Taboo,” which drew on the music of Boy George/Culture Club, to the following year’s failures “Tonight’s the Night” and “Cliff,” hinged on the songs of Rod Stewart and Cliff Richard respectively, there was a dispiriting deluge of such shows prioritizing content over quality.

So when I saw a billboard advertising the January 2009 premiere of “Thriller — Live” at the Lyric Theatre in London’s West End, it set off alarm bells. Obviously, simply using Michael Jackson’s music was going to bring in the crowds, but I stayed away for fear the production might just be adapting the videos released with his hits.

Then when the star suddenly passed away on June 25 that year and the Lyric Theatre’s frontage was buried in messages, presents and bouquets, not only did the show gain much wider recognition — but I realized that if devoted fans were turning that spot into a shrine, then my concerns over the show were likely unfounded.

As the title suggests, “Thriller — Live,” which was created by Adrian Grant, an English writer who launched the Jackson fanzine Off the Wall in 1988, is essentially a tribute concert to Michael Jackson that’s completely different from those wannabe “Mamma Mia” hits with their sweetly safe storylines.

“When I’m dancing, and when I’m singing, and even when I’m smiling, I’m trying to do it as Michael,” said 12-year-old British actor Taylor Lockhart, who kicks off the show as the main vocalist in a Jackson 5 medley which — from the moment I heard the first number, 1970′s No. 1 hit “ABC” — bowled me over with the sound’s likeness to the original group, and to Jermaine’s lead on that track especially.

Afterward, to perform material that followed the 1975 switch from Motown to Epic Records, with its name-change to The Jacksons, and then songs from Michael Jackson’s solo era that began with the 1979 album “Off the Wall,” four singers and a singer-cum-dancer take turns on stage. While each maintains an individual personality, none betrays the star’s image — and vocally they are all astonishingly reminiscent of the artist whose followup to “Off the Wall,” 1983′s “Thriller,” is the best-selling album of all time, with some 60 million copies bought worldwide.

“The audience comes to hear Michael’s songs, they’re not coming to hear me,” said Oggie, one of the lead vocalists. “But it would make no sense if all five of us had the same singing style, so we all maintain our individuality while working to portray Michael’s essence.”

Echoing that sentiment, dance leader Rose Wild said, “There are a lot of freestyle sections in the choreography, so each dancer tries to ‘feel’ Michael while giving it their own personal expression.”

Another dancer, Zoe Purpuri, elaborated, saying, “Though it’s not a perfect copy, it’s important to emulate the details of Michael’s style while also maintaining your own. Most of us have practiced over and over while watching his videos since we were children, so Michael’s dancing has become part of us.”

In the end — and despite my initial skepticism — it has to be said that the songs themselves, coupled with the overall bearing of the singers and dancers, results in an outpouring of love and respect for the late great artist from Gary, Indiana. Rose calls that heartfelt love and unending gratitude, “Michael-ism” — and it’s that which is so special about this show that comes bursting with passion and pure intentions.

And here and now, I want to apologize from the bottom of my heart for ever assuming “Thriller — Live” might be just another cheap jukebox musical.

“Thriller — Live” runs at Roppongi Blue Theater, Tokyo, till June 8. For details, call 03-5414-3255 or visit thrillerlive.jp. This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.