Thriller Live

The celebration of Michael Jackson's life is just as thrilling third time around

Thriller: Live and I go way back. Tonight is my third time seeing the Michael Jackson stage spectacular. It is still a fun night out. To prove I’m a real fan and not a ghoul, the first time I saw the show was at the Grand Opera House in September 2008. That was six months before Jackson even announced his ill-fated comeback concerts, let alone died (or was killed, depending on which overpaid lawyer you believe).

After the singer’s June ’09 demise, the production returned, this time to the significantly larger Odyssey Arena, riding a wave of nostalgia. The hoo-ha has now subsided, and Thriller: Live is back in the Grand Opera House where it belongs. The theatre is respectably full for opening night, though the air of electricity that accompanied the earlier runs is, perhaps understandably, lacking.

Still, Jackson has not lost his power to attract devoted fans. Tonight’s most hardcore audience member is a heavyset, bald gentleman who insists on shouting, ‘Love you, Michael!’ in every quiet bit of every song.

The first time, the crowd laughs. The second, third, fourth and fifth, it’s not so endearing. By the time he’s throwing his bulk around in the aisle next to me during ‘Blame It on the Boogie’, the novelty has well and truly worn off.

Onstage, understudy Chikezie Eze is seizing his moment in the spotlight. In the first act, the erstwhile American Idol finalist joins vocalists Jayd’n Noel-Dominique, AJ Lewis and Ben E Forster for a romp through the early Jackson hits. Noel-Dominique, as the young Michael, nails ‘Music and Me’. His oversized Afro wig is just the right side of pantomime. He is joined by Eze and co as the rest of the Jackson 5 for ‘ABC’, ‘I Want You Back’ and I’ll Be There’.

Eze makes a portly Jackson – this could almost be Barry White: Live – but his vocal cords are up to the task. Besides, with Forster being white and fellow lead singer Samantha Johnson being a woman, physical resemblance doesn’t seem to be high up the producers’ agenda. Jackson represented so many things to so many people, I guess it makes sense to focus on his voice and songs, rather than attempt to recreate the late star’s ever-changing appearance.

‘Another Part of Me’ (no jokes about stray body parts), a medley from 1979’s breakthrough Off the Wall album and the infectious ‘Can You Feel It’ brings the curtain down on Act I, but there are still some hits to go.

You forget how many big songs Jackson has, but they’re all there in the second half – ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’', ‘Beat It’, ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’, ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, Smooth Criminal’ and more. It ends with a show-stopping ‘Thriller’, featuring the entire cast as zombies.

Thriller: Live is cheesy, brash and has barely changed its setlist or staging in three years. But this is a musical about Michael Jackson, ferchrissakes.

If you want gravitas or genuine emotion, go see Derek Jacobi as King Lear.

Thriller: Live is on at the Grand Opera House until Oct 1. For more information check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On.