As ubiquitous as they are, biographical jukebox musicals are a tricky thing to pull off. How do you distill a life in two or three hours, especially when most of that time is going to be spent performing as many greatest hits as possible?
It’s even harder to imagine when the subject is Michael Jackson. From the Jackson 5 through solo superstardom, the musical career of the “King of Pop” spans 45 years, which is even more impressive considering that he died at the age of 50. The controversies surrounding him often overshadow his massive musical legacy, from his wildly changing appearance to allegations of pedophilia.
That’s a whole lot to take on, and ultimately “MJ the Musical” doesn’t really try to do that. Still running on Broadway after its premiere there two years ago, the musical is on a North American Tour and is now playing at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre courtesy of BroadwaySF.
Written by two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage (“Sweat,” “Ruined”), “MJ” focuses on the frenzied preparation for Jackson’s mammoth 1992 “Dangerous” world tour.
Other moments in his life and career come out in frequent flashbacks, prompted by an MTV documentary crew hanging around and asking him questions whenever they get a chance. Mary Kate Moore plays a sympathetic but scoop-hungry documentary director, with Da’von T. Moody as her amusingly overenthusiastic fanboy cameraman.
Appropriately enough for someone who transformed so completely, Jackson is played by three different actors in the musical.
With an exaggeratedly nasal speaking voice, Roman Banks is absolutely magnetic as the “present day” MJ of 1992, constantly in motion with Jackson’s magically fluid trademark dance moves. Whenever this Michael is performing, he’s always full on — and in a way he’s always performing.
Alternating with Josiah Benson, Bane Griffith is similarly bursting with star power as Little Michael, making it easy to believe how his knockout vocals and smooth moves as a child outshone his older brothers. Filling in for Brandon Lee Harris, Jacobi Kai gives a tantalizing taste of Michael as the restless young solo artist in his “Off the Wall” and “Thriller” days.
Banks often observes these scenes and occasionally joins in on vocals, but his MJ is always in the present, looking back at his past as he feverishly plans for the future.
Along the way we hear songs from throughout Jackson’s career, with terrific vocal performances from the entire cast. Some of the songs are cleverly transformed in David Holcenberg’s arrangements for maximum emotional impact, such as a hauntingly stark rendition of “Thriller.”
“MJ” shares one musical number with the Broadway-bound revival of “The Wiz” playing a couple of blocks away at the Golden Gate Theatre: “You Can’t Win,” Jackson’s song as the Scarecrow from the “Wiz” movie.
It’s quite an undertaking to embody someone whose innovative dance moves made tsunamic waves in popular culture, but Banks manages it beautifully with director Christopher Wheeldon’s dynamic choreography.
Using interviews with the documentarians as gateways to Jackson’s past, Nottage’s script is heavy on exposition, with the story’s themes often stated explicitly. MJ repeatedly says that the story isn’t about him, it’s about the music, even as he obsesses over wanting to use a pop-up toaster lift and a jet pack on the tour.
Consequently, the show barely touches on the controversies surrounding Michael Jackson. His eventually fatal addiction to painkillers comes up several times, but other topics arise solely in the context of how plagued and harassed he felt by the press, such as rumors of skin bleaching and plastic surgery. One issue never mentioned is the allegations of child sexual abuse, which would become public a year later.
Jackson’s three sisters are also omitted entirely, although Janet is mentioned briefly in the context of something MJ found interesting musically on one of her recent albums.
The focus is on MJ’s relentless, obsessive perfectionism, insisting on bogglingly expensive special effects that keep his nebbish business manager Dave (Matt Loehr) fluttering around asking how deep into debt he’s willing to go for all this.
Derek McLane’s sets and Peter Nigrini’s projections gradually transform from the spacious, warehouse-like rehearsal hall with moving panels suggesting other locations to full-on fantasias in the second act. Paul Tazewell’s costumes earn applause in their own right for conjuring some of Jackson’s most famous looks.
Devin Bowles as manager Rob and J. Daughtry’s clipboard-wielding Nick exude concern for how hard Michael’s pushing himself and everyone else as they scramble to do whatever’s necessary. From time to time Michael blows off steam by playing bafflingly juvenile pranks.
We keep coming back to Michael’s overbearing and abusive father, Joseph, played with lumbering, scowling menace by Bowles as he pushes child Michael harder and harder, nothing ever good enough for him. Anastasia Talley as mother Katherine comforts Michael lovingly even as she enables the abuse. As MJ runs everyone ragged chasing perfection, the specter of his father keeps haunting him, prodding his fear of failure.
Full of generations of crowd-pleasing hits, it’s a portrait of an artist relentlessly driven by demons that propelled him to superstardom at the expense of anything resembling a normal life.
Contact Sam Hurwitt at email@example.com, and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
Book by Lynn Nottage, music by Michael Jackson and various artists, presented by BroadwaySF
Through: Feb. 25
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco
Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $65-$185; www.broadwaysf.com