An effective way to measure the power and breadth of “Michael Jackson One” is to check out the folks seated in the audience during the performance.
Look at their heads, specifically. They bob rhythmically to the music thundering from more than 7,000 speakers spread throughout the theater, most built into the seats. They shake in disbelief and not in approval. They turn in every direction, in case they miss a singer sitting in a moon sliver or an aerialist dressed as a zombie.
You can’t catch everything in the new Cirque du Soleil show at Mandalay Bay Theater, and that’s OK. What is evident is this show is as muscular and aggressive as any production the company has staged on the Strip. Some members of the company have said “MJOne” is to be Cirque’s “redemption” show, a way to return to its groundbreaking roots after missing the mark with “Viva Elvis,” a show that did not get good fast enough to avoid being swept out of Aria. “Zarkana,” also staged at Aria, is an often-astonishing production, but it largely seems like a sequel to “Mystere” — it's highly impressive but carries some of the same traditional circus framework. But if there is a Cirque show to track as “MJOne” begins a highly publicized run on the Strip, it is “Zarkana,” where ticket sales have been pretty sluggish.
“MJOne” is fresh in the sense that Cirque has managed to stage acrobatic acts and tricks of technology you feel you have never seen before, even among its other seven shows on the Strip. This is no magic show, by definition, but Cirque has achieved illusion by taking components of the familiar and making them look as if they were conceived today.
A principal example is “Billie Jean,” one of Jackson’s most famous videos and also the song he performed on the "Motown 25" anniversary show that introduced the moonwalk to a national audience. As the song’s familiar beat fills the theater, a lineup of dancers dressed in LED-trimmed costumes performs a group version of the song we know so well. These illuminated costumes blink to the beat, and the dancers perform the steps with a precision that takes countless hours to achieve. Those in the audience erupt at this number, for what they remember and for what they haven’t seen.
Scaffolds are summoned for the great lean-forward move in “Smooth Criminal,” where again there is a new flavor for something familiar: Instead of a single Jackson figure with a small group performing that gravity-defying move, a couple dozen spread across the stage, stand amid the skeletal structures and lurch forward (specially designed shoes make this possible). Artificial snow, a relic from “Storm” in the same venue, falls anew during “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”
The dancing pole, admittedly a stage prop that could well be packed and stored, is given an updated presentation with a pair curves for “Dirty Diana.” The dancer, wearing a demonic red silk costume, spins while being hoisted high above the stage.
Trampolines, long a Cirque hallmark (this is one troupe whose jobs really do have them bouncing off the walls), are rolled out once more for the expressly Gothic take on “Thriller.” Marked in the bottom of one of the raised trampolines is a black T. It’s a target. Not satisfied with leaping across the tops of these trampolines, artists bound from top to bottom in a piston-like action. Bursting around that act are pyrotechnics and artists costumed as the undead, soaring high over the audience.
Wisely, the show avoids the sort of rote, chronological story arc that tripped up “Viva Elvis.” The references to the real Jackson are plentiful but fast-moving; segments of the “Bad” video are recalled, but not the full-length video (which some fans originally said should be called “Stupid” and was mocked legendarily by "Weird Al" Yankovic). The “Thriller” dance segment and “Billie Jean” steps are effectively resurrected, as are clips of young Michael — the one we liked in the first place — singing “I’ll Be There,” which are undeniably moving.
The idea is to draw out what we enjoyed about Jackson and blend those moments with Cirque’s incredible acrobatics, and that does work. The references to Jackson’s various idiosyncrasies — the stuff even many of his fans found pretty weird — are scant. A big skeleton of The Elephant Man, a long-lost hint at Jackson’s interest in the remains of Joseph Merrick, is rolled along the stage. You either get it or not, but such moments are brief and serve as artistic asterisks as Jackson’s music and videos are celebrated.
At the end of the show, the real Jackson emerges. Or so it seems. It’s a hologram, and a pretty convincing one, of the adult Jackson singing and dancing to “Man in the Mirror.” The figure dissolves into the child Michael Jackson, then again to the adult, and you feel like you are watching a spectacle with a real person at the center.
It’s as close as Cirque can come to the real article. This is a group that takes risks and invites all challengers. At “MJOne,” you just shake your head, blown away by it all.