Thriller Live has come to Oxford. Unless you’ve been living beneath a rock you’ll know that the show is a medley of songs from none other than the legendary Michael Jackson, who died in 2009. Unlike narrative-musicals such as Mamma Mia, no storyline governs the show. (Thank God – a story based on Jackson’s life would be sensationalist, and one born of his songs just bizarre). Instead the show moonwalks through Jackson’s career, 70s to the present, with vibrant costumes and jazzy sets to match.
Apart from the opening video montage and music, which made me feel like I was trapped in X-Factor, the show is not the hype-fuelled bonanza I was expecting: it’s a genuine and touching celebration of Jackson’s talent. The five lead singers who share the Jackson limelight are all excellent. Especially good is Cleopatra Higgins (of 90s R&B band Cleopatra fame), whose voice at times sounds eerily like Jackson’s. Jesse Smith is also fantastic: not only is his voice startlingly powerful but his performance is the most compelling. His smile and hand-gestures at the audience during a certain line of Man in the Mirror—“stand up and lift yourself, now”—actually led me to feel bad that no one had stood up.
The dancers are just as impressive. Dirty, dangerous choreography gives them every ABC opportunity to showcase their dancing machine bodies and off the wall, smooth criminal style skills. You name the move, it’s in there: splits, backflips, frontflips, gymnastic boogies that I have no name for—these people rock them all, and whether they’re on the floor or shaking their bodies, it’s bad-ass. (If you can find twelve semi- or fully-formed MJ song-titles nestling in this paragraph, you are beating it.)
The entire cast is full of energy and at West-End show-stopping standard (better even than some West End shows – Grease, I’m talking to you). The problem is not the cast but the structure of the show: even with the energy and effort of top-notch performers, the show’s first half just isn’t engaging enough. It might be a problem with the show’s chronology—Jackson’s best-known songs come later—but Thriller Live still feels unbalanced. The first half was okay. The second half was amazing. Beat It, The Way You Make Me Feel, I Just Can’t Stop Loving You, Smooth Criminal: the stream of songs that the audience loved made a world of difference to the atmosphere.
It was probably this slow start to the show—that it doesn’t feel like it’s startin’ something until the second half—that accounted for the somewhat lacklustre atmosphere to begin with. It’s only towards the end that Thriller fulfils its potential to thrill. Man in the Mirror and They Don’t Care About Us combined to make a moving appeal for everyone to try and make a change (for once in myyyyy life)—and it felt like the show was just beginning to warm up. As the lights feigned coming up someone behind me mumbled about not having heard any of their favourite songs. Only then came the MJ avalanche. All the best (and best-known) Jackson songs burst into life, and finally, finally, so too did the audience. Jesse’s ask was finally answered: everyone stood up, everyone danced, and everyone sang. Why did this only happen in the last fifteen minutes of the show? It needs a bigger and buzzier opening, with Jackson’s best hits interspersed throughout the show. The cast are too good for Thriller to be so slow to start. Cracking choreography, phenomenal live band, snazzy set, superb singers, dazzling dancers: all the ingredients are there. It’s just a shame that it was only at the end that Thriller Live got as good as it could have been throughout: good enough for five stars.
Thriller Live is showing at the New Theatre until Thursday 28th November, tickets here
PHOTO / ATG