A celebration of pop genius Michael Jackson, just don't mention the court case
It was Christmas morning, 1987, and my friend awoke to the best Christmas presents he had ever received – a black trilby hat, black and red American sports jacket and white sparkly glove.
As the family camera clicked, all those hours watching video tapes of his hero, Michael Jackson, stunning the crowd at the Grammy Awards and leading a pack of zombies through a car park, finally paid off. The crotch hold, the knee jerk, the moonwalk. Every move caught on camera.
Then Jackson took to climbing trees and calling himself Peter Pan, Metallica released The Black Album, and my friend’s obsession with the King of Pop faded from memory. Thriller Live at Belfast’s Grand Opera House reconnected my friend (OK, it's me!) with the first musical love of his life, and in no way was that inappropriate.
Billed as a ‘musical celebration featuring the hit songs of Michael and the Jackson 5’, Thriller Live follows in the footsteps of other revival shows like Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You in allowing audiences the chance to relive the heydays of their favourite musical artists in a theatrical setting.
Created by Jackson biographer Adrian Grant and choreographed by Gary Lloyd and Lavelle Smith Jr, Thriller Live charts the rise and rise of pop music’s great re-inventor, from his prepubescent days fronting the catchiest boy band ever to ‘Earth Song’. This is not a rise and fall story. In Grant’s blinkered view, the ‘pure pop genius’ of Michael Jackson never fell in the first place.
Tonight’s audience is certainly one of the most eclectic the Grand Opera House is ever likely to host. Dolled-up teenage girls sit next to self-conscious, leather-clad rockers. Young kids sport Jackson costumes while their parents bounce up and down in their seats. As the house lights go down, Belfast bristles. ‘Aow!’ ‘We love you Michael!’ ‘He-he!’ Theatre has never been such fun.
It’s all sequinned bell bottoms (courtesy of costume designer Julia Preston), afros and gyrating hips to begin with.
Thirteen-year old Londoner Mitchell Zhangazha is perfectly cast as the cherub Jackson, effortlessly belting out hits like ‘I Want You Back’, ‘ABC’ and ‘The Love You Save’ without breaking a sweat.
His absolutely hilarious dancing ‘brothers’, however, aren’t so lucky. Given that this is the first night of a European tour, their energy and commitment is faultless throughout. Alone on stage, Zhangazha shines with the ballad ‘Ben’. It’s spine-tinglingly good.
From 70s pop to disco and beyond, the hits just keep on coming. ‘Shake Your Body’, ‘Rock With You’, ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’.
Unlike the troupe of dancers, singers Peter Eldridge and Joe Birkett (of Pop Idol fame) take a while to warm up. At first Eldridge seems entirely miscast. He has the voice of Jon Bon Jovi and the rythmn of a Butlin’s redcoat. What on God’s green earth is he doing in a show about Michael Jackson, the once lose-limbed, silky-smooth prince of black America?
Birkett fits in much better, even if a tussle with a virtually none-existent mini skirt takes her mind off the lyrics for a time.
But it finally falls into place, and begins to make sense for Eldridge in the second half when Jackson turns his hand to rock on the albums Bad and Dangerous, and more manageable outfits afford Birkett the space to knock the socks off every other singer when they finally go head-to-head on 'Earth Song'.
Although one-time Jackson choreographer Ricko Baird would have the world think differently, with his crowd-pleasing yet not-half-as-good-as-the-real-thing moonwalk and second-class vocals, perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Thriller Live is John Moali.
Comfortable in his occasional role as MC and more than capable of dropping the odd trademark dance move along the way, Moali is a Jackson sound-a-like par excellence. In the world of musical mimicry, surely no-one comes close. It's uncanny.
In the end, chronology makes way for crowd-pleasing, with big set-pieces 'Billy Jean' and 'Thriller' garnering the heartiest response from the audience and 'Earth Song' performed to perfection by the entire ensemble.
An encore medley of upbeat classics keeps the audience on their feet. Ushers gather in the aisles, and they look perturbed. I'm sure a little dust descends from the stalls above their heads. Anymore dancing up there and the whole place might cave in around their heads.
Thriller Live is inter-generational entertainment at its very best. OK, so it's terribly gushing and one-sided. Aren't we forgetting something? The court cases, the pyjama bottoms, 2001's disappointingly unimaginative Invincible album?
Perhaps, but tonight is not about any of that. Thriller Live is a celebration of Jackson's indisputable pop genius. His talent didn't last forever, but his music most certainly will.