MJ Live! offers a rather lax Jax

mjshow0709128543.jpgToo clichéd to suggest a Michael Jackson impersonator take a look at the Man in the Mirror? Too harsh to suggest he Beat It?

Let’s not, then. Let’s say, instead, that Michael Firestone, starring in the new MJ Live! at the Rio’s Crown Theater, should Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ better.

Having covered Jackson at 1984’s Victory tour, this critic knows asking any impersonator to fully capture Jax magic live is like asking a one-legged man to moonwalk. Yet Firestone’s sloppy, strangely conceived tribute likely satisfies only those for whom merely a sequined-glove sighting triggers orgasms.

Fidgety at a recent show—adjusting his mic headpiece, straightening his hair, occasionally distracted—Firestone still nails Jackson’s alien-from-an-androgynous-planet look, as well as the crotch-grabs, “hee-hees” and frozen-for-a-few seconds hip thrusts. Eight dancers provide backup except when oddly unused. Example: “Thriller,” a should-be-surefire highlight, except Firestone performs solo. Those potential zombies, à la the iconic vid, are absent. “You’ve got to pretend there are zombies,” Firestone tells us, “or it’s not as cool.” Huh?

Excepting a few noticeable omissions—“P.Y.T.,” “Off the Wall”—the Jax oeuvre is well-represented, encompassing most solo hits, plus an expected Jackson Five salute with “ABC,” “I Want You Back” and “The Love You Save.”

Yet MJ Live! feels tentative, Firestone seeming unsure about meeting expectations now that Jackson’s segued from talented mortal to larger-in-death pop star. Melodically distinct as Jackson’s songs are—and Firestone renders them cleanly—it unspools with a check-it-off-the-list sameness, rather than passion—a greatest-hits run-through instead of a living, breathing tribute.

“Beat It” sounds somewhat like “Bad,” while “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” could kinda-sorta be “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and so on.

Only a couple of times does he address the crowd with half-hearted attempts to whip up enthusiasm. Only once—re-creating the milestone “Billie Jean” segment from 1983’s Motown 25 special—does Firestone approach Jax’s stage radiance, pulling off the King of Pop’s robotic moves with skillful exactitude. Yet the moonwalking is fairly scarce and his extended take peters out.

Unlike a brief appearance in Legends in Concert, a 70-minute, one-impersonation show requires a full-bore faux-Jackson, but MJ Live! falls short of Jax-to-the-max.

NOSH ON NOTES: So Surf: The Musical sank. No more fun, fun, fun now that Daddy took the Strip show away. Why did the $10 million Beach Boys jukeboxer wipe out so fast at Planet Hollywood? Hard to pinpoint.

Reviews were mixed—including one here—but unlike Broadway, critics matter less to show-seeking tourists than concierges and gabby cabbies. Is B-Boys music too sweetly naïve now? Back East, shows based on the meatier material of Johnny Cash, John Lennon and Bob Dylan also crashed. Marketing? Beach-bunny logos were slathered on billboards and taxi tops.

We’d suggest in the Phantom/Jersey Boys era, Vegas visitors expect a level of narrative involvement in musicals, rejecting Surf’s silly plot that was as thin as sliced baloney. Yet attendance was sparse right out of the chute before bad buzz ramped up.

Wait! Was it because the score didn’t include … “Kokomo”? That’s as good a theory as any. Aruba, Jamaica, oooh I wanna take ya

STRIP POSTSCRIPT: Divas Las Vegas darling Frank Marino will guest judge on TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras at 9 p.m. Aug. 22. … Eagerly awaiting Marino’s UFC cameo.

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