Thriller Live is coming to the end of a long residency in the West End, and last night I was invited to review Peter Andre’s first night in the guest star slot. He’s no stranger to the show, having appeared at its 4,000th performance celebration. I have never seen this show before, and I’m a casual Michael Jackson fan.
It’s important to state from the off that Thriller Live is in no way a traditional musical. There’s no plot or storyline, no acting characterisation or character development. I’m not sure it can even be classed as a jukebox musical like Beautiful, Jersey Boys or Sunny Afternoon – rather, I would describe it as a slick tribute concert crowd-pleaser presenting the music of the late Michael Jackson.
Seven singers, including Andre, interpret Jackson’s wide song catalogue from his Rockin Robin days (Ishaan Raithatha portrayed the boy Michael) as one of the Jackson 5 to his attempts to get involved in wider political and environmental issues in Earth Song. Vocal stand-outs last night were mean moonwalker Florivaldo Mossi (Billie Jean, Thriller) and long-time cast members John Moabi and Vivienne Ekwulugo (I Just Can’t Stop Loving You), but the effect of changing voices in a relentless parade of songs with the bare minimum of narration was a bit jarring for me.
I found the sequences which kept close to the original choreography and spectacle (Smooth Criminal, Billie Jean, Thriller) worked better than those which tried to do something different. However, with only one image of the actual MJ seen during the whole show, his presence was sorely missing throughout: a hole in the heart of this stylish but shallow show. I would have also welcomed a mix of songs across Jackson’s career rather than a rather slavish chronological approach, as this led the first act to drag a little.
Thriller Live was once renowned for getting audiences on their feet and keeping them there, but these days it’s harder to retain that energy level. The dancers are all very good – a couple (Deavion Brown and dance captain Lauren Gore) are exceptional – and the stage tech including a bank of LED screens is effective, but any pop concert worth its salt does similar -or even beyond – these days.
When Jackson died in June 2009, Thriller Live was in its first year. It has become a place of celebration and pilgrimage for fans to some degree, which has contributed to its longevity. As such it is no surprise to learn that the tragedy and controversy of his life is not addressed, nor his changing appearance (unless having so many vocalists is an unconscious nod to this). Thriller Live is a sanitised celebration of the King of Pop.
Peter Andre’s fans were out in force and he did perform well: vocally sharp, a good mover with a sizable dollop of charm. His The Way You Make Me Feel, highlighted so much in the pre-show publicity, upped the ante, and his delicate performance of Human Nature was lovely. He injects the show with a bit of new blood and is a pro at pulling the audience in: Man in the Mirror was a particular highlight.
The band are excellent, even tackling the iconic basslines and guitar solo of Beat It with aplomb. Once Thriller Live has its break from the London stage and goes on tour, it may regain the freshness it currently lacks. Having said that, a lively audience did seem to appreciate the effort put on stage in this lengthy show, and there are nuggets here and there that remain enjoyable – I did like the rainbow inclusivity of act one closer Can You Feel It.
A bit less reverence to the subject, and a bit more fire in the routines may go a long way to getting past the fact that this is in effect an expensive imitation of Jackson’s work without Jackson, and without much substance. It’s a very flash and very sophisticated party piece, and it’s fine as a piece of entertainment, but musicals have undoubtedly moved on in the last ten years.
Photo credits: Thriller Live
LouReviews received a complimentary ticket to see Thriller Live.