MJ Live Still Thrives After Moonwalking to Stratosphere


Pick a rallying cry.

Which one best suits a Michael Jackson tribute show that, bumped from one hotel, leaps into another, rather than ‘Beat It’ out of town?

Never Can Say Goodbye? Got to Be There? I Want You Back? Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough?

Perhaps not as easy as A-B-C, MJ Live survived abandonment by the Rio in February so its Crown Theater could clear a path for Duck Commander Musical, then was booked into the Riviera before that landmark wound up in a countdown to oblivion. Instead, it landed at the Stratosphere, and it’s a welcome bounce-back.

Despite Cirque’s worshipful Michael Jackson ONE, this remains a more down-to-earth evocation of Jackson’s performance power, its far lower production values cementing that appeal.

On a recent night, Jalles Franca—who rotates with Justin Dean and Tony Kouns as the eccentric, electric moonwalker—led the Jax attack. Owing, perhaps, to ironing out bugs at its new venue, some odd elements emerged.

Initially, Franca’s banter with the audience was awkward—and, strangely, in his own voice, briefly breaking character. Frequent costume changes into Jackson’s array of often-paramilitary attire sometimes yanked Franca away while numbers were still in motion, or had him jumping onboard late. Occasionally, it seemed his voice was onstage when his body wasn’t. Synchronicity in this new space wasn’t quite … synchronized.

Overlook those fixable issues and MJ Live is still a live-wire experience as Franca channels Jackson’s signature steps, vocal timbre, lyric interpretation and quicksilver dynamism. Armed with full-length tunes and medleys—bolstered by a backup band and eight dancers—the show fires most of the big guns in the Jackson musical canon.

Highlighting the song cascade—including “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Bad,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Human Nature,” “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough,” “She’s Out of My Life,” “Beat It” and “Black or White”—are several standout segments.

Agile and energetic, Franca literally Jaxes the hell out of “Billie Jean,” re-creating the indelible Motown 25 performance, including Jackson’s riveting dance routine, starkly executed in a spotlight on a darkened stage. Ramping up dramatic flourishes on “Man in the Mirror,” Franca rips his shirt open to squeals and sprints through the audience. Climaxing the song during the “make that change” lyric loop, he hits the floor, spinning vigorously for visual punctuation, with startling effect.

In an earlier edition of the production, “Thriller” was inexplicably ensemble-free, forcing its then-star, an embarrassed Michael Firestone, to ask us to imagine him surrounded by dancers as the iconic video’s zombies. Rectified later, it’s now a grand-slam number, the ghouls slithering onstage from the crowd, Franca rockin’ his fright moves in a werewolf mask.

Equally intense is “Smooth Criminal,” featuring dancers lit up in iridescent costumes and Franca in a sleek, Jackson-style zoot suit, pulling off that video’s illusionary, 45-degree-angle body lean. And the Jackson Five medley—covering “ABC,” “I Want You Back” and “The Love You Save”—crackles with retro verve.

Whatever its address, MJ Live is very much alive.

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