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REVIEW: Cirque du Soleil's Michael Jackson tribute hard for average Jackson fan to follow

The big thing missing from the Michael Jackson Immortal World Tour is, well, Michael Jackson.

For all intents and purposes the production, put on jointly with the Jackson estate and Cirque du Soleil, is an extension of the singer’s world tour that never came to be due to his untimely death from acute propofol intoxication in 2009.

From the sale of the Jackson concert t-shirts to the name of the show —“Immortal World Tour”—down to the opening of the concert when an emcee yells, “Ladies and gentlemen Michael Jackson,” the scene is set for a Michael Jackson concert.

Except he isn’t there, and that makes parts of the show feel infinitely creepy.

In his stead for most of the production is a sparkly suited mime, Salah, who bends and twists as if there are no bones in his body. As a mime and a cirque performer he is superb. As a Jackson surrogate, he doesn't work.

At the start of the show Salah taps the giant Jackson tapestry that serves as a backdrop for the stage. The colorful image of Jackson proceeds to melt (imagine the Wicked Witch of the West)—perhaps metaphorically conveying the singer’s demise to the audience.

“Ewwww. What’s going on?” a woman close to me groaned. The image then explodes.

For the first 15 minutes of the show the Cirque dancers proceed with marginally interesting sequences in front of Jackson videos.

"There was none of the electric energy that you expert from a celebration of Michael Jackson’s music"

Then there is a drawn out version of “Childhood” with cartoon animation of Neverland’s ferris wheels and carousels. Lyrics like “People say I'm not okay…'Cause I love such elementary things...It's been my fate to compensate, for the Childhood I've never known," serve to remind the audience that Jackson himself never had a childhood. This is true. But it sets an odd and uncomfortable tone for the event that is more mournful than celebratory.

And when you feel that things can not get any stranger in this production—out comes Bubbles. Yes Bubbles is represented by a man in a chimp suit dressed in a red and white striped t-shirt, who emerges to monkey about onstage with Salah.

I don’t believe it was just me that felt uncomfortable. The audience at Madison Square Garden seemed to be confused about what to get excited about. Of course there was cheering when the incredibly adept Cirque performers flew through the air, some lit in LED body suits. They are wonderful and exciting. But the energy in the venue remained low, with audience members staying in their seats unmoving for the majority of the show. There was none of the electric energy that you expert from a celebration of Michael Jackson’s music. 

Now it may be that Madison Square Garden is too big a venue for something like this. The Beatles Love show, which is a near equivalent, plays to an audience of just over 2,000 at the Mirage in Las Vegas. A show like this may simply need a venue more intimate than the 20,000 capacity Garden. The tour is proceeding through large concert venues as if it is a concert, and not a Cirque tribute performance.

The production is a solid tribute to the late singer, but maybe not a populist one. At least 50 percent of the music is new or obscure and completely unknown to the casual Jackson fan. Playing old or obscure songs seems to be the prerogative of aging rock bands, not deceased pop stars looking to carry their legacy on to the next generation. When a popular song was included it was often part of a medley of hits. The long and drawn out numbers were reserved for long, slow and unfamiliar ballads.

The real life of Michael Jackson was anything but normal and his eccentricities were something embraced by many of his fans. Unfortunately this show goes almost too far in highlighting those eccentricities over the parts of Jackson’s life that the average fan enjoys.

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