Mini-review – Thriller Live (new cast) – Lyric Theater

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Given my general aversion to jukebox musicals, I’m sure you’re wondering just what exactly I was doing at Thriller Live at the Lyric Theater last Thursday for “new cast press night.” Well, it’s a bit embarrassing, but I’d been promised it was a cheesy fun time and, for all that I do love my Pinter, I also enjoy some cheesy fun. And I recently realized that songs like “Shake Your Body” actually really get me dancing. So I cast aside my fears of the actually bad era of Michael Jackson and headed in for a night that I hoped would awake the 80s groove within me and get me boogie-ing.

The evening opened with a recap of some of the bigger hits of the Jackson Five, as fronted by a tiny boy who didn’t really seem to be into it and who reminded me that getting a really young child fronting a pop band is actually quite a feat. Fortunately, we had some other singers rescue us from the rather under-energetic lad, including the quite excellent Cleopatra Higgins. However, during an energetic disco number that had all of the girls in short shorts, Cleo inadvertently reminded us of one of the many Jackson moments that were completely glossed over in this show, namely Janet Jackson’s Superbowl peek-a-boobie. The girls next to me were nearly in hysterics as the energetic dancing vigourously attempted to reproduce the titillation of that long-ago faux pas, but through some sort of miracle Cleo managed to keep the girls under harness.

This actually brings me around to one of the real highlights of the show: the backing dancers. Insofar as we were supposed to be getting our groove on, it was the sexy, talented, acrobatic and athletic male and female backing dancers who really got me into the show. Jackson’s music excelled at getting people to boogie, and watching these pros go for it made me want to get on the dance floor. And when the Jackson Five came out in rainbow colored suits and got some late-era disco action going – well, it was like a early Pride celebration settled right down in the Lyric theater.

Unfortunately, both the pacing, the musical choices, and the (non-Cleo) singing talent didn’t work. I realize recapturing even just some elements of Jackson’s zing is an uphill task even with five men and a woman trying, but the net result was so much less than the effort involved. I found myself cringing at most of the singing and relieved when the dancer who did Jackson’s most famous moon walking and zombie action moves settled for lip synching. I was also confused by the uneven chronology: while the show seemed to be going for a historical approach, Jackson’s biggest 80s hits were piled on at the end. That left me struggling to stay motivated (or unmotivated to stay) as songs I’d never heard before and never missed – “Dirty Diana,” “Smooth Criminal” – reminded me of why I switched to alternative music in 1982 and never looked back. And then, well, let’s be honest, can you really examine Michael’s “legacy” and completely leave out chimpanzees, hair a-fire, bizarre adoption schemes, and baby dangling? Those things are forever tangled up in the Michael Jackson story to me and to completely ignore it seems calculatedly dishonest. So when the show finished, with skeletons in a graveyard and a zombie Michael Jackson twitching and jerking his way through Thriller, I thought, given how long it’s been since he died and what kind of black magic they used to “revive” him without any baggage, it’s no surprise the rotting ghost of Michael was all they ultimately managed to summon.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, June 26, 2014.)

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