Where do you begin with a review of Thriller Live, the musical concert production of Michael Jackson’s music. It is in its 10th year, with multiple touring and international productions in its history.
Firstly the elephant in the room is Jackson himself, who has always overshadowed the production whether in life when it opened in January 2009 as his This is It residency loomed larged to his death in June 2009 before the residency had its first show. Thriller Live went from being yet another tribute to Michael Jackson to the definitive tribute as fans realised tributes were their only option to see his music performed. The biggest shadow is the allegations that dominated the last two decades of Jackson’s life and resurfaced this year in the documentary Leaving Neverland. The complexities of Jackson’s lifestyle in contrast with his music means that Thriller Live doesn’t have a narrative because is narrative is just too depressing.
Thriller Live markets itself as a celebration, perfect tourist fodder as the focus is the music with the odd context (“Thriller is a really good album”, that sort of thing) and mindless fun. Ahead of a refurb to the Lyric Thriller Live will finally leave its West End home after 11 years and it feels like the right time to leave, despite its success.
Thriller Live, a show that relied on the reputation of Michael Jackson and its talented cast of singers and dancers, has Peter Andre as its guest star for a two week residency. It is much needed refresh, when I first saw Thriller Live earlier this year it felt tired with an air that it needed a refresh perhaps through a deeper dive in Michael Jackson’s back catalogue. The choice of Andre is interesting; vocally and physically he is very appropriate but his residency comes a few months after his defence of Jackson. When Peter Andre was a mere babe he entered a Michael Jackson impersonation competition in his native Australia. He came second to Wade Robson, who would be one of Jackson’s accusers in Leaving Neverland.
That complexity of his relationship to Jackson makes Andre’s appearance feel like he won a competition of sorts. For his loyalty to Jackson in the face of adversity. His presence in the show should feel more of a distraction, he is the only name in this show but the production, much like the man who inspired it, struggles with its identity. Is it a full blown tribute show with a lookalike who recreates Thriller, Smooth Criminal etc or is it an original production inspired by Jackson’s music and his live shows? It never does anything groundbreaking with the songs, except going for some not very good obscurities like “This Place Hotel“ or ignoring anything from the Invincible album. The question that has haunted Thriller Live over the last 11 years is “Who is this for?” the casual fan who might have owned Thriller and nothing else or the hardcore Jackson fans that still scream “I love you, Michael” when Michael isn’t there, though having recently re watched the incredibly trashy Michael Jackson Seance, maybe he is always with us.
When it works well such as the Egyptian-inspired Remember the Time paying homage to the original video, directed by John Singleton with Iman and Eddie Murphy it is great. The choreography is challenging and it makes the most of the young dancers but it also baffles; a pyramid backdrop to Human Nature, comparing Bob Geldof to Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr in a backdrop to Man in the Mirror, the weird outfits in Dirty Diana that suggest she was not a femme fatale but a cockatoo.
Thriller Live has managed to survive through the death of the man it is about, the sheer contempt from theatre audiences for taking up a space in the West End and rising ticket prices. The fans of the show adore it and its disappearance will have an impact but it has its day and it is nice it is going out with an attempt to refresh a show rather than carry on as usual.
Thriller Live is booking until 20 April 2020 https://thrillerlive.com/