Zack O’Malley Greenburg, Forbes Staff
Sammy Davis, Jr. once said that “everything Michael Jackson does on stage is exactly right.” The King of Pop indeed left some big leather loafers to fill, but judging by the crowd’s reaction at MGM’s Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour is doing an admirable job.
Among those in attendance for Saturday night’s performance: Cee Lo Green, as well as Jay-Z and Beyonce Knowles. Seated within view of the reporters assembled to chronicle the show, the couple laughed and smiled as acrobats and dancers swirled across the stage–zombies popping out of coffins, contortionists emerging from giant books, even a performer dressed as a giant white glove–all while a live band blasted out the soundtrack beneath Jackson’s soaring vocals.
“We have all done our best to make this a celebration of his essence in his absence,” musical director Greg Phillinganes told me shortly after the show’s debut. “His passion for humanity … his commitment to excellence, his flair for the big show, we’ve tried to incorporate all those factors.”
Immortal is the highest-grossing live show in the country for the second week in a row, bringing in just shy of $2 million per night in Vegas. That’s over half a million dollars more than the next-highest earner, Taylor Swift, according to concert data provider Pollstar.
It’s all the more impressive given that the Jackson show has been parked at the 8,500-seat Mandalay Bay Theatre for much of December; Swift has been playing arenas more than twice that size, as Immortal will soon be doing when resumes its trek across the North America. An international leg is set to follow in late 2012.
A joint venture between the Michael Jackson estate and Cirque du Soleil, Immortal opened in October and is already approaching $100 million in ticket sales. That should come as no surprise, given the extraordinary spectacle that audiences witness with each performance.
The show begins with a spotlight illuminating a mime clad in all white; his shell-toed sneakers and backwards hat make him look more b-boy than sad clown. As he cozies up to an image of Michael Jackson that fills a giant video screen at the back of the stage, the pictures melts away to reveal the band, and a troupe of dancers streams onto the stage.
The mime serves as a guide throughout the performance, starting with Jackson’s early years and the song “Have You Seen My Childhood.” There’s a miniature hot air balloon and a Jackson Five montage complete with dancers dressed as Marlon, Tito, Jermaine, Jackie and Michael–oversized afros included. As the show continues, a replica of the Neverland gates rolls out, followed by performers dressed as Bubbles the Chimp and some of the other animals that once resided in Jackson’s private zoo.
Next comes the “Smooth Criminal” segment. The screens behind the stage turn black-and-white, revealing a video of Jackson outsmarting a series of detectives as they try to track him down. All the while, tommy gun-toting dancers decked out in fedoras and pinstriped suits mimic and elaborate upon Jackson’s moves, culminating in a flurry of pyrotechnics and mock gunfire that leaves only one dancer standing.
Perhaps the most impressive is the scene that comes next. The surviving gangster rips off her white suit to reveal nothing more than a shimmering bikini–and proceeds to ascend a slim tube that extends 30 feet or so into the air. Upon reaching the top she launches into an aerial pole-dance, contorting herself into positions that would seem impossible even on solid ground. At some point, she manages to hold herself perpendicular to the structure, supported by nothing besides her own strength.
Pushing the boundaries of the human body are trademarks of Cirque du Soleil, and that’s one of the many examples in which Immortal lives up to its lofty expectations (There’s also a scene where one acrobat lifts a partner into the air using only a strap hanging from his mouth; in another, a green dancer folds herself into a pretzel-shape and walks on her hands).
There’s a bit of tongue-and-cheek humor, too: at one point, Michael Jackson’s trademark black loafers appear as Mini Cooper-sized characters, each manned by a single dancer.
Though Immortal pays homage to Jackson’s biggest hits–”Thriller,” “Billie Jean” and “Man in the Mirror,” to name a few–it also showcases some of Jackson’s later work, including the environmental anthem “Earth Song” and the oddly prescient “They Don’t Care About Us.” The latter of features scores of stomping robots with dollar signs emblazoned on their metallic chests, an idea dreamed up years before the birth of Occupy Wall Street.
Immortal features quite a few mashups of Jackson’s music, so it’s only fitting that the show ends with a parade of dancers hoisting flags that bear the combined symbols of various nations.
The production’s narrative arc does jump around a bit, as one might expect given the diverse nature of Jackson’s oeuvre. But Immortal’s architects managed to connect everything in a generally coherent manner–quite an achievement, given the staggering array of individual songs and mashups that made the final cut.
At any rate, the show has clearly passed the necessary tests in Vegas. Plans are already in the works to renovate the Mandalay Bay Theatre, which currently houses the Lion King, to accommodate a modified version of Immortal in time for a 2013 opening. If this month’s run is any indication, it should be a bonanza for MGM, Cirque du Soleil and the Jackson estate.
Though Jay-Z and Beyonce ducked out as the performers were taking their final bows on Saturday night, it’s clear that another superstar–Michael Jackson–will be staying in Las Vegas for quite some time.