An animatronic six-year-old Michael Jackson sails through the Bell Centre in a hot-air balloon. A hefty MJ impersonator in a red Beat It jacket dons bull horns and charges at a matador. A dancer dressed as Bubbles, the king of pop's famous pet chimp, hovers in a giant, elephant-skull cradle and is spun gently by a mime.
Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, Cirque du Soleil's extravagant new arena spectacle that embarked on its 47-city tour in Montreal Sunday night, has to be one of the weirdest shows ever created. It's rub-your-eyes, pinch-yourself, drop-your-jaw bizarre.
From one perspective, that makes it a fitting tribute to the late, great and entirely out-there pop star – an actual circus for a man whose life often played out in three rings. (And whose death continues to attract a media circus.)
And yet this bloated and busy spectacle will ultimately leave many Jackson fans and Cirque fans cold. Perhaps even, at times, creeped out – no more so than when that wide-eyed, lost-looking robo-Jackson floats by as the disembodied voice of his now-dead adult self sings: "Have you seen my childhood?"
Jamie King, who has directed and choreographed world tours for Madonna, Rihanna and Celine Dion, is the lead creator on this Jackson-estate-approved project that saw Marlon, Tito and Jackie Jackson and Michael's three children on hand for opening night. Creating a pop concert without a pop star is a conundrum that he has not solved satisfactorily, however.
His main trouble is finding an alternative focus for the eye – Jackson's physical absence is always palpable amid a clutter of back-up dance routines, underwhelming aerial acts and sensational set design.
Two threads try to bring the show together. First, there are five Michael Jackson fans, dressed as various incarnations of their hero, on a trip to Neverland Ranch; their performances are an awkward marriage of dance and clown.
These pilgrims are stopped by living statues at the gates to Neverland, but they eventually get them open by donning fright-wig afros and lip-synching to a medley of Jackson Five songs. There's a hint of the myth of Orpheus in their journey into an underworld atmosphere of Thriller and Ghosts to find a lost love.
The second guide for the evening is a childlike mime, Salah Benlemqawanssa, dressed in a white, crystal-covered onesie that fits him like a (single) glove. He first appears doing a typical crowd-warming Cirque routine – knocking on invisible walls to elicit cheers – but gradually over the course of the evening he morphs into a funky breakdancer whose flexibility is absolutely astounding. (According to the press materials, the mime is "suddenly inhabited by the spirit of Michael Jackson" in this routine, which makes his white makeup a tad disconcerting.)
On a production level, The Immortal World Tour is nothing less than a marvel with its giant "Giving Tree" and morphing video screens. On the main stage, a very hot live band plays under Michael Jackson vocals taken from original studio recordings. This stage is connected to a smaller platform in the centre of the arena by a couple of moving-sidewalk catwalks.
On a more basic level of stagecraft, however, The Immortal World Tour is frequently frustrating. There's one aerial ring routine during which you can't see the acrobats for their sparkling suits. And King keeps pulling the eye every which way, leaving it confusing to know where to look. Should I be watching green-clad tumblers in the centre of the arena or the white ninjas flying around the Giving Tree on the main stage?
There are a few simple, calm moments where the music and the movement match up (as they do so well in the Cirque/Beatles show, LOVE), for instance contortionist Anna Melkinova spinning around a pole without a wire to catch her to Dangerous. "She came at me in sections," indeed.
The group dance routines are less impressive, however, the elaborate sets and costumes winning out over movement. Ten choreographers are involved in the show, a figure Cirque is celebrating, but this really is a case of more being less.
Thematically, The Immortal World Tour taps heavily into Jackson in messianic mode, his pleas for children and animals and planet Earth. As the show reaches its climax, an army of robot soldiers invade the stage and a video montage of violence and poverty from the Rodney King beating to famine in Africa appears on the giant screens. "All I really want to say is that/ they don't care about us," sings Jackson angrily, yet not so helpfully dividing the world into us and them.
Soon, however, the magic and wonder of the immortal comes to unify and Heal the World – the soldiers' LED breastplates stop showing dollar signs and switch to hearts. Indeed, the entire cast walks through the audience holding up giant, scarred hearts glowing with divine light. The Roman Catholic Church should sue for copyright infringement.
For me, the ultimate chilliness of the evening was encapsulated by a moment in which the sold-out, opening-night crowd at the Bell Centre seemed to start to chant, "Michael! Michael! Michael!" After a few moments, however, it became clear this was a recording. A disembodied audience cheering on a disembodied star. Is this where we are now?
Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour is touring North America, including performances in a number of Canadian cities. For information visit cirquedusoleil.com.
Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour
- Written and directed by Jamie King
- A Cirque du Soleil production
- At the Bell Centre in Montreal