Unless you're absolutely obsessed with either Michael Jackson or Cirque du Soleil, there's little point in making a special pilgrimage down to the Mandalay Bay Events Center to see Michael Jackson THE IMMORTAL World Tour™. (Global only if you define "world" as the United States and select provinces of Canada.) After its month-long residency in Las Vegas, the show packs up its 38 truckloads of paraphernalia and embarks on a grueling, eight-month, 47-stop marathon, beginning in Phoenix, ending in Salt Lake City and traversing the continent several times in between.
So the chances are pretty good that Immortal will play in a city near you some time in the imminent future. And if it doesn't, the permanent version of the extravaganza is slated to open at Mandalay Bay's theater between March and June of 2013 (the timeline is still somewhat hazy). Of course, for Vegas Strip purposes, the show will have to be condensed to 75-90 minutes, so if you want to see Immortal in its initial, 120-minute splendor, you might want to make haste to Vegas now.
But if you do, budget at least half an hour to get to your seat. One passageway. Four metal detectors. Five ticket takers. Eight thousand ticket holders. You do the math.
There's already been some downsizing of Immortal. Its much-touted "Giving Tree" was pruned to a giant stump after it was belatedly discovered that the high-tech arbor wouldn't fit into the MBay Events Center. (Uh, schematic drawings, anyone?) Since the initial, Pacific Northwest leg of the tour was glitch-prone, the Vegas run represents a chance for Cirque to de-bug the show before sending it back out on the road.
Despite being, in essence, a traveling circus that plays in vast sports arenas, the World Tour iteration of Immortal is not especially grandiose (especially when compared to Love). At its present size, it looks like it could fit into the Zumanity theater at New York-New York straightaway. So if you're expecting something more epic than even Vegas can offer, disappointment may be your lot. It's a regular-size Cirque show that happens to be playing in a much, much bigger room. Interestingly, the space it will eventually inhabit currently hosts The Lion King and one of Immortal's crowd-pleasers is "Wanna Be Startin' Something," with the dance corps costumed Lion King-style as African savannah animals. Homage or diss?
Cirque has learned from at least some of the mistakes it made on Viva Elvis. Its new spectacle does not try to constantly cram the stage with performers. Nor does it shoehorn aerial and gymnastic acts into the show for their own sake. It's a more selective spectacle, with a clearer sense of purpose - probably because Cirque is more at home with Jackson's idiom, having been out of sympathy with the cosmos of Elvis Presley.
Although there are always many chefs in the Cirque kitchen, director Jamie King deserves credit for orchestrating a production that is evocative without being outright narrative and that doesn't over-interpret the Michael Jackson catalogue. There's no Viva Elvis-style psychobabble or attempt to "explain" Jackson. King's also resisted the temptation to simply stage a greatest-hits parade, although this necessitates relegating some of Jackson's biggest blockbusters (most controversially, "Billie Jean") to a medley near the end.
What King evidently hasn't done is decide how he wants to end the show, which seems to conclude five times in succession, trying to top itself over and over. (When the inevitable cuts are made, this exhausting succession of grand finales will probably be first to feel the axe.) Acrobatics, not dance, is Cirque's strong suit and the choreography-by-committee is largely mundane. The opening-night audience's response was most favorable to those numbers which hewed closest to their music-video source, like the pyrotechnic-spouting gangsters of "Smooth Criminal" or the "Thriller" dance line - given a more timeless look by ditching the original's Eighties wardrobe in favor of a Creole-inspired voodoo style.
Immortal's beautiful-but-goofy dichotomy is epitomized when "Ben," a love song to a rat, is embodied by a pair of dancing elephants in the highly colorful, costumed form otherwise associated with Chinese ceremonial dragons. It's dazzling and 'WTF?' in the same moment. Perhaps they represent the two metaphorical elephants in the room. One is Jackson's deeply troubled life, especially his physical metamorphoses and his controversial relationships with children. The other is the songwriter's increasingly fey aesthetic in his later years, which actually plays to Cirque's strengths.
Yes, Immortal is sometimes creepy, maudlin and even bathetic (as when a taped Jackson reads some of his awful poetry in voice-over). But that comes with the MJ territory. You can't have "Beat It" and overlook the Neverland Ranch wackiness: They're both part of what the guy was and what made him tick. But it's only fair to warn you that there are grown-ups trying to make like the Jackson 5, a human-size version of Bubbles the Chimp, a giant, blank-faced Baby Michael robot who periodically floats across the stage and that Jackson's principal onstage surrogate is a mime, caked in white from head to toe. Even if you're allergic to mime, you'll admire the performer's Gumby-like physicality. Ditto the single-amputee dancer who far outshines most of the two-legged terpsichoreans onstage.
You might say there are three elephants in the building if you count the multiple-screen video wall that forms the back of the stage. It's versatile, morphing into an illuminated staircase at points, and translucent -- enabling one to occasionally see the band, which is situated behind the screens. But when human-sized performers have to compete with superhuman-sized video, the giant TV monitor is going to win every time.
This is especially true during the last third of Immortal, which becomes essentially a movie with dance accompaniment. Also, since the forestage is a round platform (not unlike a huge drum skin), protruding into the audience via a moving walkway, most spectators are going to have to spend the evening picking and choosing which of Immortal's many moving parts they're going to watch and which ones they'll have to ignore. Cirque apologists would say that's beside the point, it's a three-ring circus, blah blah blah. (Interestingly, Cirque itself characterizes Immortal as a "rock concert.") But at these prices, people deserve to get the whole show, not just snatches and impressions. Director King told the Las Vegas Sun he "wanted the entire audience to see every aspect," but he's asking the impossible.
The audio mix is surprisingly good, considering it's being blasted through a butt-rattling, all-purpose speaker system. About the only qualm that one can register is that the live instrumentalists are more clearly seen than heard. However, the employment of Jackson collaborators Kevin Antunes (arranger) and Greg Phillinganes (music director) was money well spent.
A recitation of the dozens of individual tableaux would be tedious but there are a few that deserve special mention. Foremost is "Human Nature," in which aerialists in dark, LED-adorned body suits are abstracted into constellations floating in a simulated night sky. Two Mystere-like fantasy creatures conduct a midair pas de deux against "I Just Can't Stop Loving You." And 10 dancers in glow-in-the-dark costumes are deployed for the LED-lit medley of Jackson chart-toppers that prefaces the final "Black or White."
Doubtless the biggest challenge faced by World Tour will be getting thousands upon thousands of people to turn out for a Michael Jackson concert in which Jackson is not physically present. Cirque seems to have captured the spirit of the Gloved One, with all the glory and embarrassment that entails, and that may be enough. But if you've got the patience, best wait for the 2013 resident Mandalay Bay version. World Tour is Michael Jackson through the wrong end of the telescope.
Michael Jackson -- The Imortal World Tour. Mandalay Bay link.
Michael Jackson -- The Imortal World Tour. Producers link.
7 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. (Dec. 9, 10, 11, 16 & 17)
Mandalay Bay Events Center, 3950 Las Vegas Boulevard S.