Theatre Review: The Michael Jackson History Show – Remembering The Time, Or Hits And Hip Thrusts

January 20, 2024




The Michael Jackson History Show / Directed by Johnny van Grinsven / The Mandela, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg


One of a catalogue of Showtime Australia tribute shows – the company also has touring productions honouring Whitney Houston, Neil Diamond, Abba, the Bee Gees and others – The Michael Jackson History Show is a concert-style theatre show. This is to say that there is no storyline: all the focus is placed on the music – and in Jackson’s case, the choreography – created and released by the artist whose name is on the poster.

One of the major markers for the success of a tribute show is how much it reminds its audience of the genius of its subject, and on that basis, this show makes an immediate impact. It’s easy, in a world where streamed music dominates and radio charts and similar arbiters of excellence no longer have the influence they used to, to forget not only how ubiquitous the creations of some of the best musicians, songwriters and performers were when those artists were at their peaks, but why their music had such a dramatic impact.

A live band, including two backing singers who hop in occasionally as duet partners, recreates the unmistakable rhythms and melodies of the huge catalogue of hits Michael Jackson had over the years, from his Motown youth with The Jackson Five to his pop supremacy as a solo artist. Again, the reminder of both the quality of the individual songs – Beat It, Billy Jean, Smooth Criminal – and the range of song styles, from Bad to Earth Song and Thriller to ABC, is a substantial driver for the enjoyment of the show. It also highlights the relative paucity of truly world-leading material in the modern music market.

As Jackson, Capetonian Garth Field does an excellent job. He’s not a straight lookalike, but he has what matters far more in this particular case: the ability to move like Jackson, and to handle the high range of the American’s vocals (and to manage well when a tech issue briefly affects a microphone). The choreography and vocal stylings are the most enduring parts of Jackson’s brand (“Ooh-hoo!”; grabs crotch with gloved hand), but the show also adds the iconic outfits associated with each period of the artist’s output – the read leather jacket, the somewhat disturbing gold G-string bodysuit. Swapping between these costumes adds extra complexity to Field’s already full dance card (as it were), requiring him to sometimes begin a song from the wings as he works his way back to the spotlight in a new outfit. To be fair, it’s a non-stop show for him, and his stamina, along with that of a superb quartet of dancers, is phenomenal.

If there is a shortfall in production terms, it’s the set. There are screens onto which video footage and other visuals are projected, but the two smaller ones, on either side of the stage, have not had the resolution of the material properly calibrated, so they’re essentially brightly coloured collections of pixels most of the time. And the steps between the levels, painted black, are lined with black gaffer tape. A simple white strip along each edge or some narrow bands of LED lights would make a considerable further visual impact.

But it’s the music and the dancing that hold attention throughout. Fans of Jackson’s will revel in this and newcomers will become fans. Job done.