Michael Jackson Remembered at Mandalay Bay but Lives at Rio

Justin Dean in MJ Live!

Justin Dean in MJ Live!

He’s here. Not there.

Ironically, Michael Jackson’s spirit beats stronger at the Rio’s modestly scaled MJ Live! than at Mandalay Bay’s Cirque-tacular Michael Jackson ONE. Sacrilege? (Or Cirque-rilege?) So be it.

Moving on from original Live! star/impersonator Michael Firestone, the off-Strip salute is now in the crotch-grabbing hands of Justin Dean and Jalles Franca, who alternate the moonwalking mimicry. At the performance attended, Dean was the Jax du Jour. Unlike Firestone’s fidgety, sometimes sloppy interpretation, Dean’s is laser-like in execution, energy level ratcheted into the red zone, vibe with the audience palpable, as when he leads a sing-along to “I’ll Be There” and peppers the hourlong show with a personal touch.

Fortunately, Live! has rethought a ridiculous omission. Whatever his shortcomings, Firestone couldn’t be blamed for having to push through “Thriller” without backup dancers, apologetically asking the crowd to “imagine” zombies behind him. Now ghoulies surround Dean in an approximation of the iconic video. Only Dean’s strange lag on “Billie Jean,” chronically a second behind that throbbing backbeat, is a nagging distraction.

Otherwise? Jax to the max.

“We miss you, Michael!” a woman shouted to Dean. Within that burst of contradiction—acknowledging that Jackson is gone, but embracing the illusion he’s right there—lies the MJ Live! advantage over Cirque’s carnival-esque homage, even with the latter’s holographic Jackson briefly stunning the Mandalay Bay crowd.

There, Michael Jackson hides—a deified ghost amid a gorgeous cacophony, floating above and around the frenzied production, but never truly occupying it. Here, Michael Jackson lives, breathes, excites—and resurrects.

Each, of course, has different goals. Cirque’s spectacle aims to evoke a spirit, not re-create a performance, and is ultimately subservient to the troupe’s signature sight-and-sound extravagance. Measured by scope, ambition, technology and artistry, the comparison isn’t even apples and oranges—it’s apples and baby carrots.

MJ Live! is a tribute show, a common, even clichéd element of Vegas entertainment and low-cost, tourist time-killer. Yet as a Jackson admirer, what makes the shorter, simpler MJ Live! work for me is that beyond dropping the legend in my lap in tribute-show style, it also treats him as the exceptional performer he was in life—talented and human—not the absurd ethereal entity he’s become in death, reinforced by Cirque.

Having seen Michael Jackson perform live in the 1980s, MJ Live! for me is a superior reminder of his magic, even minus Cirque’s frills and thrills.

Exiting the show, one man noted: “That was my first Michael Jackson concert.” Cirque can give fans a sumptuous memorial. But it can’t give them that.

STRIP POSTSCRIPT: Loosening its grip on Vegas just a bit, the 1980s took a Strip hit as The 80s Show, producer Sirc Michaels’ low-rent, hit-and-miss musical, shuttered August 28 at Planet Hollywood. Saying the show is “taking to the road,” Michaels claims he’s juggling invitations to perform it elsewhere and can’t make it work with its V Theater schedule.

Panic not, ’80s addicts: The Decade of Kitsch survives as long as the Venetian’s Rock of Ages continues squeezing enough cheese out of it to rival a Wisconsin dairy farm.

Got an entertainment tip? Email Steve.Bornfeld@VegasSeven.com.

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