Before his death, Michael Jackson planned a comeback tour titled "This is It." Cirque du Soleil's Michael Jackson Immortal World Tour feels like the concert that Michael never got to do.
We had a chance to get a sneak peek of the show earlier this month in St. Louis. Myself and photographer extraordinaire Ellen Mathis got a backstage (and under the stage tour), and got to meet some of the performers who make this such a dazzling show.
First off: The average Cirque du Soleil fan should come with an open mind. This isn't like a traditional Cirque show. There is less focus on the acts or circus like stunts and not a heavy-symbolism laden story. The artistry is driven by Michael's music, with the story following his musical evolution and overall message of unity. There is a lot of dancing with acrobatics mixed in.
What this show manages to do in only a few hours is amazing. It feels like a concert with a live band filled with musicians who used to play with Michael, large video screens and pyrotechnics.
The Cirque-purists won't be disappointed. The cast includes mainstays like acrobats and contortionists. A welcome addition to the mix is an aerial pole dancer.
Former star of his own one-man show French mime Salah Benlemqawanssa is the audience's guide through the world of Michael's music. He takes on the King of Pop's spirit and appears throughout the show. Though soft-spoken in person, Benlemqawanssa has such a commanding presence throughout the show. It doesn't hurt that he practically radiates in a $50,000 Swarovski crystal track suit and matching hat.
If you are sitting close enough, watch his facial expressions. He is so expressive. And those little sounds you hear him making are real. He made them throughout his hours-long task of applying makeup before the show.
We were privy to pre-show routine, which requires detailed makeup application. He even has a booklet explaining how to do it. (I can barely get my eyeliner on straight!)
Another highlight of the show is dancer Jean Sok “BBoy” Hourth. We didn't get to interview him, but we saw him backstage. Knowing that he has only one leg, we were wondering how he danced during the show. Watch for him if you go because he is a show-stopper! He does more with one leg than I can do with two. I don't want to spoil too much, but he is awesome!
To see what these artists do on stage is one thing, but to see the city underneath the stage is another story. There are tiny hallways where performers crawl around preparing to pop up on stage, quick change rooms and a lot of props.
The prop-master showed us around several of the larger items including a large balloon, huge Michael Jackson replica (used in "Human Nature") and the coffins from the "Thriller" number.
There are so many working parts to this show that is amazing that they have time or space to fit in pyrotechnics. But they do. There are sparkler explosions throughout the show and most impressively used during "Smooth Criminal" when the dancers shoot their "glove guns" leaving a sea of sparks. I got to try out those gloves and believe me they are pretty awesome!
Another first for Cirque - LED lit costumes. During "Human Nature," "They Don't Care About Us" and a mega-mix at the end, dancers are wearing costumes light by LED lights. And they aren't the easiest things to maintain. The costume director in charge of those outfits was in the midst of changing batteries when were there. They were still working out the battery-life on some of the costumes.
The core of the show is the sense of unity that Michael's music contained. Lifelong Michael Jackson fans will adore this show, but you don't need to be a fan to connect with it. I wasn't the biggest Michael Jackson fan growing up, but this show blew me away.
One of the defining moments of this production is the end when during "Black & White" performers run through with flags representing various countries. Each flag contains a collage, signifying that we are all one.
The man, the music and the message - a show not to be missed.
Note to parents: The show is long, but has a 20 minute intermission. It will likely end after some of their bedtimes. It can be a little rough for younger children to sit through. I heard a few children wondering when it was going to start and end when I was there. It is also loud! I saw several children holding their ears at times. So you might want to bring earplugs. The costumes aren't too scary for "Thriller" or the number before it "Bats." The Thriller costumes look more like mummies. The scariest thing in the show to me was Bubbles the chimp, who runs around hugging people sitting in the floor seats. Another thing to note, there is a scantily clad pole dancer who does some acrobatics. She is not vulgar in her performance and makes it into more of an art-form.