“Showing how funky strong is your fight, doesn’t matter who’s wrong or right”
Finding myself the recipient of an invitation to the 1,000th gala performance of Thriller Live at the Lyric Theatre put me in something of a little quandary. I’ve had a mixed experience with the few jukebox musicals that I have seen and this was never a show that had appealed to me, despite being a fan of some of Michael Jackson’s music and thus never something I had considered booking. But, in finding a new friend of a similar sceptical view to my own, we took the plunge to visit this ‘musical celebration featuring the hit songs of Michael and the Jackson 5’.
Not knowing what to expect added a little thrill of anticipation but to be frank, by the time the first half was drawing to a close, things were looking grim and it was the prospect of a quick trip to the bar that was keeping us there. The show is free of any narrative constraints, instead taking the form of a musical tribute concert with a largely chronological tread through Jackson’s back catalogue starting in the Jackson 5 days. But what made it particularly painful was the running commentary that Britt Quentin was saddled with, interspersing the songs, reading like banal excerpts from a Wikipedia entry and rather pointless, very much a case of preaching to the converted. Throw in an audience participation section that was lukewarm, a fair few Jackson 5 songs I’d never heard before and X-Factor style montages and my patience was wearing thin.
The man himself is represented in his songs by a lead cast of six performers, including a boy, a woman and a dancer. Vocals were shared around so that we got some solos and some group numbers with varying degrees of success. Trenyce Cobbins’ rock vocals suited some of her songs more than others; Alex Buchanan’s emotional intensity was impressive but came largely at the expense of a watchable performance; John Moabi’s genial stage presence made him a more attractive performer and 12 year old James Anderson was the main saving grace of that first act with an adorable set of songs.
But something happened in the second half, the relentless energy of the singers and particularly the dancers seemed to seep into the auditorium and, I have to be honest with you, I began to really enjoy myself. A large part of this is to do with the move into the Thriller and Bad era of songs which are arguably some of the best pop songs ever written but more importantly for me, formed part of my childhood soundtrack. Back in the pre-iPod days, I used to listen to the few albums that I possessed from start to finish and Bad was one of those that was regularly repeated and this personal emotional connection with the music was something that could not be resisted here. That era also marked the real establishment of his inimitable iconic dance moves (has there ever been another pop star whose dance moves were so original?) and so the already-strong choreography from Gary Lloyd gained an extra spice as best shown in an energetic ‘Beat It’ and a genius version of the ‘Smooth Criminal’ moves.
Reducing the commentary to a minimum was a popular decision; bringing on about six young’uns to sing ‘Heal the World’ was a cheesily perfect way to deliver the sugary sweetness of a song for which I must admit I have a great love and by the time we reached the finale with its quadruple whammy of ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Thriller’, ‘Bad’ and ‘Black or White’, there was no hesitation about getting up and having a good old time. As part of the 1,000th gala performance celebrations, we were treated to special performances from Shaheen Jafargholi (new to me, but then I’ve never watched Britain’s Got Talent in my life) who sung a bit of I’ll Be There well but overdid the vocalising in the group singing of Heal the World, and also from Blue, fresh from their Eurovision efforts and so a little under-rehearsed (lyrics scribbled on hands and a couple of line fluffs) but they were wildly received by the audience for their rendition of ‘Man in the Mirror’.
There were aspects of the show that did bug me, the commentary in particular and the seemingly random ordering of some of the songs which broke the chronology of his back catalogue. And it is hard to credit that this show which is less theatre than musical entertainment is taking up one of the main houses on Shaftesbury Avenue – I do not at all mean to sound ungracious for the invitation, for it allowed me to experience something I would otherwise have never done and think a little about the commerical successes of the West End. Numbers don’t lie and in these economic times (combined with the unfortunate good timing), crowdpleasers are a safe bet and something that brings money into the West End, no matter how much some might cry for shows of greater artistic integrity. Thriller Live is exactly what it says on the tin and once we’d surrendered to the inherent daftness of the occasion, it became something of a guilty pleasure, an evening which was most certainly enhanced by the aftershow party at Planet Hollywood (mini burgers! mini chocolate brownies!). It really isn’t a show for people who aren’t fans of Michael Jackson, but then let’s face it, why would you book this show if you weren’t!