Musical Review: Thriller Live! (Lyric Theatre, London)

Cleopatra Higgins in Thriller Live! Photograph: Irina Chira.

Cleopatra Higgins in Thriller Live! Photograph: Irina Chira.

Rating: ***

In a Nutshell:

Cheap and tacky looks are made up for by some great performances from the leads, particular Cleopatra Higgins.

It’s been five years since Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, died suddenly. I remember the evening it happened: some drunk on Pentonville Road accosted me, loudly lamenting his death. I politely responded, “well, that’s very sad,” and left him to his own devices, shrugging it off as mere intoxicated delusion. So, imagine my surprise when I logged onto my computer to find out that the inebriated man was actually telling the truth.

None the less, this musical revue of his life and successes from the Jackson Five onwards, has been going for nine years and counting, even if it has turned from celebration to obituary. Now, there’s a definite breath of fresh air in welcoming Cleopatra Higgins, from 1990s pop group Cleopatra (comin’ at ya), onto the West End stage fresh off her involvement with the national tour of the show.

Direction & Choreography

Director and choreographer Gary Lloyd, makes great use of not only the main stage area, but also the set’s various levels, filling it with movement and spectacle. Whilst overall it looks great and the dance troupe perform with gusto and panache that gives a real sense of octane and energy. The problem is that many moments just feel a little too copied from Jackson’s various videos and movie. But that’s always going to be the problem with this type of show: celebration treads a fine line between it and imitation. It’s difficult to be wowed when you’ve seen it all before, but then you can’t exactly not reproduce some of these iconic bits of choreography.

Production

I personally have a very grim view of video screens in any production. Unfortunately, the prolific use of them in Thrillier Live! just serves to reinforce my bias. The ones here make the entire production look cheap and tacky. The graphics are lazy and uninspired, and also look awful due to the lack of definition due to their scale. The animations for the show’s titular number looked more like something off of the Nintendo’s Just Dance videogame, rather than something which is supposed to be of West End grade and show-stopping.

What makes these heinous pieces of technology even more unwanted is the fact that most other aspects of the production render them unnecessary. Costumes provided by Shooting Flowers are dazzling and colourful, illuminating the stage more effectively than these digital disgraces. Lloyd’s choreography also adds more motion and flair than the tacky moving images. The cast, too, bring a sense of presence and showmanship that steal the limelight away from the screens. All this show needs is the good lighting designed already provided by Nigel Catmur. The screens only serve to detriment and distract and really need to have something thrown at them: preferably in the style of Macintosh’s 1984 advert.

Cast

Higgins is billed as the main draw and she certainly does not disappoint. She brings a heady injection of the power and glamour with her fantastic voice and bubbling charisma: all that made her a success on BBC’s talent show The Voice. What is most endearing is that she wholly makes every song she’s involved in her own, embodying the true spirit of celebration that the show is really about. She is astonishing and a joy to watch, holding the entire audience for entire songs at a time without ever tiring or faltering.

Thriller Live!'s previous ensemble. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Thriller Live!’s previous ensemble. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

The other leads also do well to follow suit. Ricardo Afonso provides the show with a few gob-smacking belters that are pretty unbelievable to behold. Indeed, each lead brings their own personality and charismatic quality to their parts.

The only time that the leads don’t quite work their magic and their talent into the show is when they’re trying to be Jackson. It’s impossible to replicate MJ’s character and mojo, so why try? This is most apparent in our young Jackson, played on this particular evening by Kyle Johnson.  Johnson’s performance came across as a little stale, especially sized up against readily available footage of Jackson as his young virtuoso self. Whilst Johnson’s efforts should certainly be applauded, you can’t help but feel disappointed knowing that he’s come up short of expectations. The same can be said about David Jordan who, whilst executing Jackson’s signature dance moves with precise perfection, they just feel hollow by comparison to the legend himself.

Verdict

The problem with this show is that it’s stuck somewhere between homage and emulation, not to mention marred by some terrible production choices. But it’s the moments of homage that work best and worth seeing the show for. Whilst the emulations just feel like mere reproduction, missing the undeniable sheen of the original.

But whether you’re a big MJ fan or not, what certainly shines through are the spectacular, memorable, and personal tributes to Jackson from its leads. Thriller Live! is by no means a show you should rush to buy a ticket for, but if you find yourself there, then there’s still plenty to look forward to by way of some great moments, and overall it’s still an enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

Thriller Live! is currently playing at the Lyric Theatre, London, W1D 7ES. Tickets are £27.50 -£65. To book, visit www.nimaxtheatres.com/lyric-theatre/thriller_live

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