There was always a media circus around Michael Jackson’s life, career and especially his early death, and now he’s been appropriated, unsurprisingly, by the biggest circus company in the world: Cirque du Soleil, who have already previously given the Cirque makeover to the repertoire of the Beatles and Elvis in two Las Vegas resident shows, Love and Viva Elvis respectively.
Cirque have brought their arena stage touring spectacular Michael Jackson The Immortal World Tour, which opened last Friday in the O2 Arena, the same London venue where Jackson was supposed to stage his 50 performance farewell run. He died during the rehearsal process just three weeks before the first show was due to be given.
I guess if you can’t see the real thing, why not see a show that combines snatches of the real Jackson on multiple split-screens, in between snatches of his songs, with occasional bursts of gymnastic, acrobatic and aerial accompaniment that are Cirque’s usual trademarks. But Cirque’s dismal spectacle is neither one thing nor another, trapped in a void that is neither circus nor concert show but feels merely exploitative instead.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with the ambition to fashion a new type of entertainment; but if their Beatles Vegas show is one of the greatest I’ve ever seen, providing an exhilarating physical embodiment of those familiar songs, the Jackson show falls into a gap – and trap – of simply relying on the audience’s clear affection for the memory of the man to provide a kind of engorged, loud karaoke dance show.
That’s the kind of thing that West End and Broadway jukebox shows do all the time – the latest of which, Let It Be, is simply an accomplished tribute band going through the repertoire. We also already have a Jackson show in the West End, Thriller Live, which has become a kind of living memorial to him and is where the fans immediately migrated when he died to leave tributes.
Cirque’s Vegas Beatles show, in particular, shows how it could be done: a boldly imaginative and thrilling riff on the repertoire that took them, and us, to new places with every song. The Immortal World Tour, by contrast, simply brings us back to the same place every time: Jackson himself. But if that’s what fans want, they can already go to the Lyric Shaftesbury Avenue for half the price and double the impact.
Last week I saw one of the best rock/pop shows I’ve ever seen when I saw the start of the UK tour of American Idiot; now I’ve seen one one of the worst. No, not Rock of Ages, but Cirque du Soleil’s Immortal World Tour.
The effort in trying to arrange the tickets, by the way, was far in excess of the reward; for what is effectively the largest live entertainment operation in the world, they have a slightly weird attitude towards PR. The company has an in-house PR attached to each show, but multiple outside agencies are also appointed to handle different aspects of the media, and trying to find out who might look after you is an art in itself. I was referred on no less than four times in the end, before receiving an answer; it’s certainly an interesting spin on the usual PR process where they chase journalists, this has me chasing how to find whoever it is!
No doubt Cirque du Soleil don’t exactly need coverage for this show, so perhaps that’s part of the plan – to keep us away! And I bet they wish they had, in my case. As it is, I recognised precisely two people on the night: The Independent’s Arifa Akbar and the Guardian’s Lyn Gardner (who told me that she’d been approached to come in a highly unconventional way herself; she was sent an invite saying they’d noticed she’d reviewed a few theatre shows, so would she be interested in seeing this one?)
A clump of journos were seated in the same area – so I had a perfect view of the guy, two rows in front, who was writing his notes on his iPhone, thus causing it to light up and cause a glow throughout the evening. It’s usually the sort of thing that drives me to fury. But on this occasion, it was weirdly more interesting than the show happening on the other end of the arena; how a journalist can consider this acceptable practice is bizarre, to say the least.
But then perhaps, as Lyn Gardner suggested to me, he’s a rock music critic and such behaviour is entirely normal at gigs, where everyone has a phone in constant use to take pictures with. On Sunday I went to see Idina Menzel in concert at the West End’s Apollo Theatre, and an usher’s pre-show announcement from the front of the stalls was that photography was allowed, but no flashes, please, or filming. So different rules clearly apply at concerts these days.