When “Michael Jackson: THE IMMORTAL World Tour by Cirque du Soleil” parks itself at Philips Arena for three shows June 29-July 1, familiarity will drip from the stage.
Not only in the form of Jackson’s pop nuggets, mostly played by a live band except for some nostalgic glances to the Jackson 5 days (“I’ll Be There” is particularly affecting), but also by some of the people involved in the show.
Choreographer Travis Payne worked with Jackson since 1991, starting with the video for “Remember the Time.” That was just a few years after Payne graduated from Northside High School (now North Atlanta High School) and attended Morehouse College before heading to Los Angeles for a gig with Janet Jackson.
For years, Payne collaborated with Jackson, and was working on moves with him for the “This is It” tour when Jackson died.
His boss, Payne said, was “a great taskmaster, but he knew it was for a good purpose. Sometimes he’d forget to eat because he’d get so consumed. He lived his art. I think a lot of times people mistook his kindness for weakness. He always turned the other cheek, always. He remained optimistic about people.”
Of the 25 songs presented in the show, a concert-Cirque hybrid, Payne said “Billie Jean” was the most challenging to choreograph because every live Jackson performance of the song was different.
“I’d rush to the wings during his concerts to see what he would do that night, depending on how he felt or what the audience was giving him,” Payne said. “I wanted to pick out the morsels that could then be taught to people to perform every night. Not trying to be Michael, just celebrating that work.”
Another artist familiar with Atlanta, saxophonist Mike Phillips, is also part of this Cirque spectacle, playing in the live band. Phillips left Atlanta three years ago for Portland, Ore., after a nine-year residency here, but still maintains a house on the south side.
To him, the beauty of “IMMORTAL” is the blending of Cirque’s over-the-top approach to everything, combined with Jackson’s outsized ambitions.
“It will have to be electric and spectacular,” he said.
But despite the number of high-energy favorites in the show, including “Smooth Criminal” and “Beat It,” Phillips said his favorite part is a somber one, when a childhood version of Jackson blankets a video screen to sing “I’ll Be There.”
“You remember then, that he was just a little kid,” Phillips said. “No matter what he’s gone through, at the end of the day, looking at that little kid and his intentions as a child…they were the same intentions when he passed.”
The “IMMORTAL” show takes place at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $50-$175. Philips Arena, One Philips Drive, Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com.
By Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene