A Cirque du Soleil production. At Rogers Arena on Friday, November 4. No remaining performances
It can be hard to see, what with all the acrobats, aerialists, balloons, bats, bikinis, soldiers, statues, welders, whizzbangs, zombies, and wacko Jacko impersonators, but there’s a giant, star-shaped hole at the centre of Cirque du Soleil’s latest production. What’s missing is Michael Jackson himself.It’s sad, and inevitable, but Michael Jackson: THE IMMORTAL World Tour is enormous, impressive, and utterly, devastatingly hollow. The problem was compounded on Friday night by the unexplained absence of the giant Giving Tree, the on-stage centrepiece which director Jamie King, interviewed in the Straight last week, called IMMORTAL’s “energy source”. (Confusingly, what’s left of the tree, which served as both a sturdy oak and a sprawling, tentacular alien life form when the show made its debut in Montreal, now resembles a scale model of a nuclear reactor’s cooling tower.)
IMMORTAL tries to deliver a stadium-worthy rock spectacle, but there’s no emotional core to hold it together. Jackson’s outsized charisma might have done the trick—but he’s not there. Instead, there’s his voice, liberated by digital technology from his studio mastertapes, and his songs. There are dozens of dancers, all of whom seem to have learned his moves step for step. There are archival images from his iconic videos. But the only sparks are those ignited by pyrotechnicians.It would be easy to lay the blame on the narrow shoulders of the hip-hop dancer and mime playing the Jackson role, but that would be unfair to Salah Benlemqawanssa. He’s a small, slight man who, off-stage, comes across as naturally humble, even shy—but he does have a gift for embodying emotion, and a supremely flexible body to do it with. The moment towards the end of the first set, when he rises from lying on his back to a standing position without the use of his arms, defies all of the known laws of physics.
But Benlemqawanssa is not served well by King’s penchant for nonstop sensory bombardment. At times, he’s so swamped by squadrons of flashily clad dancers that, in his simple-but-spangly white jumpsuit, he seems a lonely ghost. And in general, the Franco-Moroccan artist’s performance is on too small a scale for an undertaking of this size. (Hint: bring binoculars.)
Miming that could have been impressive in a cabaret setting was lost at Rogers Arena—although it might have been effectively transmitted to the crowd were Benlemqawanssa given a more prominent place on the giant video screen that backdrops the stage. That, though, would take away from digital Jackson, whose beamed-in-from-beyond-the-grave presence looms way larger than any of the carbon-based cast members.
In terms of that cast, during “Scary Story-Is It Scary”, contortionist Baaska Enkhbaatar delivers further mind-boggling physical feats, but the rest could be automatons, so perfectly faceless is their work. Musical soloists Desireé Bassett on guitar and Tina Guo on electric cello fare better; both should be able to use their “Beat It” showcase to win a place in a real rock ’n’ roll stage spectacular. Former Jackson sideman Greg Phillinganes’s band is impeccable: big and splashy and perfectly integrated with the prerecorded singing—which is less of an accomplishment in this age of lip-synching than it used to be, but it’s still not easy.
It all adds up to the kind of awesomely absurd spectacle that’s long on wow but short on satisfaction, however. The defining moment for this viewer came near the end of the show, when an image of Jackson is projected onto the remnant trunk of the Giving Tree. With his arms spread wide, it looks like the King of Pop is being crucified—and then the lights come up on a catwalk above the stage, where Bubbles the Chimp and his turntables are rocking a “Mega Mix” of Jackson hits.
There’s something beautifully bizarre about Michael Jackson being born again as a chimpanzee DJ, but it’s probably not quite what the show’s creators had in mind.