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.
Michael Jackson’s older brother Jackie Jackson is convinced that the late King of Pop is fully supportive of all the Cirque du Soleil show developments and the two productions set for Mandalay Bay starting in December. “He’s definitely watching over this. He’s going to be alive in everybody’s minds for all the years to come now. He lives on,” Jackie said.
“Michael would have loved what’s going on now for his legacy. He always loved the business and the entertainment all his life. He loved the flash. He loved Las Vegas. He loved Cirque and saw every Cirque show they produced.
“I still remember the very first Cirque that came out. He called and told me, ‘Jackie, you’ve got to see this show.’ And he flew me out, and we saw the show together and from then on he saw every show. He loved Guy (Laliberte), the Cirque founder, and the whole Cirque show family. He loved them, so he really wanted to be a part of them. … He’s a part of it right now with these shows. It all fulfills his own dreams, and I believe he knows all about this and would be very proud and happy with it.”
Jackie told me that the first Michael Jackson: Immortal show that arrives at Mandalay Bay on Dec. 3 is a traveling rock concert spectacular. “The second show will be permanently housed at Mandalay Bay. They will be completely different in the way they look and feel, even though Michael’s songs will be the same.
Photo: Darrin Bush/Las Vegas News Bureau
Daniel Lamarre, president and CEO of Cirque du Soleil; Chuck Bowling, president and COO of Mandalay Bay; Jackie Jackson, brother of Michael Jackson; John Branca, co-executor of The Michael Jackson Estate; and Jamie King, writer and director of Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, at Mandalay Bay on April 27, 2011.
“Obviously, because people want the hits in both. I can’t get into the other show right now because there’s going to be surprises about it, and I don’t want to give anything away. All kinds of things will be going on with the permanent show and the memorabilia zone.”
His line of leather jackets from Michael’s own designs will be launched in about five weeks on Amazon and will be among items for sale in the Michael Jackson Zone to be opened at Mandalay Bay.
Mandalay Bay President Chuck Bowling is the executive who has to reconfigure his hotel gaming floor for the Michael Jackson invasion.
“We have a reputation around the world for providing the best in dining, the best in nightlife and for many, many years have provided the highest quality of entertainment. Our sister MGM resort hotels are homes to the most successful entertainment brands in the world largely due to our partnership with the creative geniuses at Cirque De Soleil. We are ready for this. We are confident of its success, and we know Michael Jackson will be at Mandalay forever.
“Simply put, there’s a Cirque show for every kind of fan. In recent years, Cirque has partnered with such powerful bands as The Beatles and Elvis Presley, and that left only one other … who could join this extraordinary group — Michael Jackson!
“We’re honored that the relationship here at Mandalay Bay will ensure it is home for all things Michael Jackson. … Michael stood in a category all his own. Over his lifetime, he achieved and sustained a level of success that transcended any one genre or any one audience. Michael is an international icon renowned for his music, his dance, his mystique and his style.
“The world lost an extraordinary entertainer, but through the eyes of the creative geniuses at Cirque De Soleil, Michael will now live on in many new ways, for new audiences for years to come. That’s a wonderful gift to us all. We look forward to welcoming the world here in the coming months and years to enjoy experiences unlike anything Las Vegas has seen before.”
Photo: Darrin Bush/Las Vegas News Bureau
Michael Jackson’s fedora and crystal glove at Mandalay Bay on April 27, 2011.
And the incredible logistics involved? Cirque will keep the 1,800-seat Lion King Theater when they move in Dec. 31, but everything else changes. “We’ve begun thinking about the process of putting all three elements together: theater, interactive space, the MJ Zone with the ultra lounge and retail. The logistics of it are still in design. … We’ll clearly create an amazing experience inside of the showroom that we’re starting to define now.
“So far, we have not developed a firm budget — not even really a tentative budget. We’ve got ideas in the background, but it wouldn’t be accurate to quote you anything, but we’re working on that. Certainly multi-, multi-million dollars. We’re only going to do the right thing, like Cirque and MGM resorts have always done: always first class. Add the Michael Jackson element, it can only be one thing, which is top-of-the-line first class.
“We are very excited about all the Michael Jackson elements that will elevate the total brand of Mandalay Bay. We know it will further our entertainment footprint not only in Las Vegas but also all over the world. This is an important message that Las Vegas is more than alive and well. … This will bring hope.”
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.