Trying to please all Michael Jackson fans is like trying to please an Italian mother – it’s never gonna happen.
But Cirque du Soleil pulls out every trick in its overstuffed arsenal with “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour,” a flashy valentine to the singer that is 40 percent Broadway razzle-dazzle, 40 percent arena concert and only 20 percent typical Cirque.
Because the show is structured so differently and playing in cavernous arenas rather than the intimate customized theaters of Cirque’s other music-based shows (The Beatles’ “Love,” easily the best show in the Cirque canon and the limp “Viva Elvis,” mercifully being put out of its misery soon), “Immortal” often gets lost in its own grandiosity.
With a cast of more than 200 and a song list of about 25 tunes (some done medley-style), there is always something (dizzying) going on, usually by the immensely talented troupe of dancers and acrobats.
The show, which plays Philips Arena through Sunday, is a multimedia feast, with six ginormous flat screens – some that lean as effortlessly as the dancers in “Smooth Criminal” – a massive riser for the 12-piece band (including one-time Atlantan Mike Phillips on sax) and a catwalk, dotted with LED screens, that sees much of the action.
There is no real timeline or linear story told during “Immortal,” which begins and ends with the gilded gates of Neverland, because the creative focus is about showcasing Jackson the man as much as Jackson the performer. Those identifying traits – his dedication to nature, his humanitarianism, his quest for peace – are better represented in the superior second part of the two-hour show (including a 20-minute intermission).
A desire to present fans with more than the usual pat rotation of Jackson’s Top 40 hits meant the inclusion of lesser-known songs such as “This Place Hotel,” “Is It Scary” and “Threatened.” The songs might have been fun to choreograph, but their presence only bogged down the first act.
“This Place Hotel” featured Bob Fosse-like choreography – some dancers even scaled moving lamp posts – but as soon as you noticed the male dancers’ outfits of suspenders and black fedoras, you knew “Smooth Criminal” wasn’t far off…and hoped it would arrive soon.
A contortionist rose from the pages of a giant book of ghost stories in “Is It Scary,” while a team of “bats” – dancers clad like insect Dick Tracys – bobbed through “Threatened.”
Yes, they looked cool, but it’s hard to get excited about songs you don’t care about.
The highlights of the first hour came with the silly-fun Fanatics, a group of Jackson 5 impersonators who looked more like the Fat Albert crew, lip-syncing through “I Want You Back,” “ABC” and “The Love You Save”; the literal sparks that flew from the heels of the “Smooth Criminal” dancers during the famous lean; a jaw-dropping pole-dancing performance from Felix Cane (don’t think that didn’t wake up the men in the nearly sold-out crowd); and the lovely routine from four aerialists in blinking costumes for the sublime “Human Nature.”
Oddly, despite the presence of mummies, grave stones and the iconic moves from the epic video, “Thriller,” which closed the first part of the show, underwhelmed. Except for the presence of one-legged dancer Jean Sok, a true marvel every time he graced the stage.
During act two, the inspired mind of Atlantan Travis Payne, who worked with Jackson since 1991 and handled the choreography for “Immortal,” thrust into hyperdrive.
The snoring sequined glove and massive dancing loafers during “Beat It” were a trip, while the marching futuristic military troupe that steered “They Don’t Care About Us” provided one of the show’s most visually arresting and thought-provoking moments.
Though it required nothing more than an old black-and-white video and a fluttering curtain as the projection surface, “I’ll Be There” was one of the few times you felt truly connected to Jackson and not as if you were merely watching a glitzy overview of his life. Hearing his little boy voice and seeing his innocent smile immediately caused goosebumps – and a bit of sadness.
But a Cirque show isn’t going to let an audience wallow – especially if you have the energetic catalog of Jackson from which to draw. Cue the “megamix” of “Can You Feel It,” “Don’t Stop Til’ You Get Enough,” “Billie Jean” and “Black or White,” which kicked off with Mike Phillips front and center, prompting the crowd to dance.
With the acrobatic – and somewhat creepy – Bubbles the chimp (Terrance Harrison) overlooking the proceedings from a contraption in the ceiling, a team of elastic dancers in varied-colored jumpsuits boogied at the foot of the catwalk. Don’t duck out early before “Billie Jean” or you’ll miss one of the more memorable costume moments.
After rocking for a bit, the show lulled the crowd with “Man in the Mirror.” Jackson’s anthem of self-reflection was a subdued ending, but yet somehow a fitting way to exit this flamboyant homage.
If you go
“Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour by Cirque du Soleil”
8 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday. $50-$175. Philips Arena, One Philips Drive, Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, http://www.ticketmaster.com/.
By Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene