Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury
Michael Jackson died mere weeks before legions of fans could witness his comeback shows at the O2. Those sold-out dates are consigned to the ‘what if’ file, but the concert celebration of Thriller Live carves out one last hurrah.
As the glitzy red banner of the show’s title is extinguished, replaced with darkness and an orchestral build, the audience at the Marlowe buzzes. Darkness blasts into an X-Factor-esque rundown of the King of Pop’s stats, as onscreen text about albums sold and awards won is pitched into your face like a Star Wars opening in reverse.
It’s an overture that says exactly where you are. No calibration needed; we’re in worship land. Shock tabloid headlines briefly cameo, if anything to enhance this presentation of a global superstar, and the gesture towards Jackson’s troubled life is just that: a way to say, “Yes, we remember – now on with the music”. And what music! Supported by a punchy live band, whose guitar solos chop up the steady flow, the tunes are the draw here.
Thriller Live essentially offers a tribute act with all the trimmings. Progressing through Jackson’s career from childhood (ABC, I’ll Be There) to Off the Wall, Bad and beyond, the show is a greatest hits album in motion. Its production values – simple and vivid; a glittering staircase both sides of the stage – sets it apart from your average impersonator with a mic and a few moves, and the talent doesn’t disappoint. The spoken interludes are a distraction, reiterating those ITV-style statistics, but where else can you see Smooth Criminal’s impossible 45-degree lean, or an extravagant rendition of Feed the World, carried out with such panache?
The show uses four lead performers, regularly all at once, to replicate Michael Jackson’s unique voice and stage presence. This allows singers to shine in different ways, whether Jesse Smith’s husky takes on ballads such as She’s Out of My Life, Lascel Wood’s impressive falsetto, or the superb Cleo Higgins’ uncanny likeness to MJ’s voice in the Jackson Five years. At the same time it’s a reminder of Jackson’s singularity, of the very unlikelihood of those vocals, moves and presence uniting. You could say that Jackson deliberately courted Elvis comparisons with the ‘King of Pop’ moniker, but his unrepeatability makes the parallel apt.
Indeed, Sean Christopher bags one of the night’s loudest ovations simply for executing Jackson’s trademark dance moves. He moonwalks, side slides and hip thrusts as the other leads can’t, to the extent that the audience seems unconcerned by his lip-synching. But for some this will seem a cheat, and it’s a shame that a couple of the biggest final numbers are performed to a pre-recorded track. If nothing else, it’s a curious set-listing choice: why sign off with something that might alienate your audience?
Yet without fail, Thriller Live fills the Marlowe with excitement. There are so many hits in the vault that you leave the theatre able to count the songs not used, giving a feeling of something finished early – a fitting tribute to a talent gone too soon.