Michael Jackson Immortal did something no other Cirque du Soleil show has ever done: Bored me.
Cirque truly is a magic-maker, having almost single-handed reinvented the concept of the circus, turning it into something unmissable rather than might-as-well. The trick of Cirque shows is that they combine the simple elegance of feats of athleticism with beauty and muscularity, while employing cutting edge technology in startling ways. Its best shows — Ka and Love, two of the permanent shows in Las Vegas — seamlessly wed plot, engineering and the human form.
Immortal does none of that. Yes, there are some pyrotechnics (the best of these, an indoor fireworks display, comes too little, too late) but the entire production feels conceived as an after-thought, some second-tier acts tacked on to boring choreography and muddled production values.
The failure is most stark in the opening segment of Act 2, an aerial pas de deux using Russian straps while a track of Michael Jackson’s voice sings “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” It’s the best routine in the show: A simple, clean, well-paired use of music, theme and spectacle. It’s one drawback: The image of the acrobats, projected onto a huge curtain behind them, is cluttered with fairy-dust-like special effects — contrails that extend the motion, as if the contortions of these two bodies were not enough. The thing about Cirque is, such beauty almost always is enough, and Cirque should know that by now.
But that’s the least of it. If the CGI add-ons in this one segment are a distraction, for most of the remainder of the show they are visual pollution. One routine features a floor contortionist positions on a giant book, bending herself into mind-blowing pretzels. At least, I think so: The writing on the book, combined with fast-cutting video and flying graffiti overwhelm the image to the point you can barely see the performer. It’s symptomatic of most of the acts in this show.
Some of the acts are downright ugly, even stupid. And over-sized glitter glove is meant to move as if a hand were inside it, but looks more like a epileptic is having a seizure in a straightjacket. The huge sparkly-socked shoes are equally dumb, and move without any of the anti-gravity grace of Michael himself.
Another weakness is the way they music frames the action. The genius of Love, which employs exclusively the music of The Beatles, is that you do not have to be a Beatles fan — not even a little bit — to be gobsmacked by the stagecraft. The songs weave a storied tapestry that rely entirely on the music. Immortal, by contrast, is first and foremost a tribute show to The Gloved One. Basically it proceeds chronologically through his life, with video clips of old Jackson 5 cartoons and TV appearances before moving on to his videos. As a result, we can chart the plastic surgeries and development from adorable sprout to talented weirdo. You pretty much have to be a Jackson fan to like this show; it preaches to the choir, and is not interested in converts.
For much of the audience, that seemed to be OK. But you could sense from the tepid reactions to many of the numbers that many were newcomers to a Cirque show, and were simply puzzled by what they were watching. Tons of pre-recorded tracks of Michael himself crooning away as cast members lip-synched. Then it would become live performance, with on-site musicians singing. Many of the songs were truncated, including the Act 1 closer, “Thriller,” which should have blown the audience away going into intermish, but merely felt abbreviated and silly (there was no red leather jacketed Michael clone doing the zombie dance, either — what, are those moves copyrighted?).
Jackson’s music holds up well; despite the length of his career, his music has never felt time-sensitive; “ABC” and “Black and White” are clearly from different stages of his musicianship, but neither feels dated or relic-y. He was a master entertainer, and consummate performer — nowhere more evident that in the video of young Michael singing “I’ll Be There” with the confidence and personal style of Tony Bennett (he was 10).
But Jackson was also a controversial figure in his personal life (and, in light of the recent Sandust-up, a creepy guy when it came to children), and much of the imagery in Immortal — the Neverland Ranch, Bubbles the chimp — only remind us of his weirdness. It made me itchy.
All this might be forgivable if the Cirque-ish acts were up to par; they are below. Granted, the one-legged dancer — I am not making that up — is revelatory, and the bodies on many of the male athletes will get your heart racing. But it all felt second-string, like Cirque has grown weary of innovation and has sent their contract players out into the provinces to soothe the rabble while the kings dine in Vegas. I’m not biting, milord — not even for the King of Pop.
Final show of Michael Jackson Immortal tonight at the American Airlines Center.