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Michael Jackson comes to life in ‘MJ The Musical’

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Michael Jackson comes to life in ‘MJ The Musical’
Roman Banks as ‘MJ’ and the cast of the MJ First National Tour. PHOTO: MATTHEW MURPHY

Michael Jackson is about to moonwalk his way onto Boston stages in “MJ The Musical,” a jukebox production based on the life of the famous entertainer that features a biographical narrative and many of the pop star’s greatest hits.

“When it comes to Michael Jackson, it’s all about legacy,” says Devin Bowles, who plays Joseph Jackson and Rob, Jackson’s manager. “Michael Jackson had a way of leaving an impression with his authenticity. Michael brought his own fashion, his own creative ideas, his own movement, his own cultural embodiment.”

Roman Banks as ‘MJ’ with cast members in “MJ The Musical.” PHOTO: MATTHEW MURPHY

The story is set as Jackson prepares for the Dangerous World Tour in 1992. Some of the scenes show Jackson and his team rehearsing for the tour; in others Jackson chats with a reporter, recounting his early days with the Jackson 5 and discussing his creative process and life with such significant celebrity.

“MJ The Musical” was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and won four: Best Actor in a Musical, Best Choreography, Best Lighting Design and Best Sound Design. The production was created by Tony Award-winning director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage. In the national tour cast, Roman Banks primarily plays Michael Jackson, supported by Brandon Lee Harris as Michael at a different age, and youth actors Josiah Benson and Bane Griffith playing Little Michael.

For Bowles, the musical is significant not just to honor a pop legend, but also to showcase that success in the arts is achievable for diverse talents. The cast is almost entirely BIPOC performers.

“Telling diverse stories, especially in the medium of theatre, is one of the most important variables of success in external and internal growth,” says Bowles. “Seeing a physical manifestation of someone else living and working on a caliber of art that you’re striving to be part of is important.”

Jaylen Lyndon Hunter as ‘Little Marlon’ and Ethan Joseph as ‘Little Michael’ with cast members. PHOTO: MATTHEW MURPHY

The show, which runs at the Citizens Opera House through July 7, features many of Jackson’s greatest hits, including “Beat It,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Thriller” and more, but it isn’t all upbeat tunes and jazzy dance moves. The narrative explores some of the challenges Jackson experienced, including childhood trauma, the fire that caught in Jackson’s hair during a Pepsi commercial shoot and a tense relationship with the press.

The primary goal of “MJ The Musical” is to educate about Jackson’s life while providing a fun night out. There are limits to the depth of a pop-based, high-production jukebox musical, but Bowles hopes audiences learn more about Jackson’s emotional interior, as well as his eclectic wardrobe and perfected choreography.

“I would love for audiences to take away the work ethic that Michael Jackson had. I believe work ethic is the quality of execution between idea and reality, and Michael Jackson was the blueprint for that,” says Bowles. “His music and his boldness to be the greatest is what separated Michael from the rest.”

Citizen's Opera House, Michael Jackson, MJ The Musical, theatre