A little kid’s play enlivens Michael Jackson benefit show

Elijah Johnson during “Las Vegas Celebrates the Music of Michael Jackson” at The Pearl in the Palms.
Photo: Tom Donoghue/www.donoghuephotography.com

Leave it to an 11-year-old wunderkind to remind us why we are still so fascinated with Michael Jackson.

On Saturday afternoon the child genius who is Elijah Johnson assumed the spirit of Jackson, hearkening a period when Jackson eclipsed performers decades his senior, when he was the Jackson offspring who launched the Jackson 5 to international fame and became one of the most celebrated (and famously troubled) entertainers in history. Elijah goes by the stage name -- yes, he’s 11 and has a stage name -- Lil’ Elijah. He’s one of the Young Simbas in “The Lion King” in the Las Vegas version at Mandalay Bay. Not sure it’s fair to say Lil’ Elijah stole the show at the “Las Vegas Celebrates the Music of Michael Jackson” benefit show at The Pearl Concert Theater in the Palms. The lineup of Vegas entertainers was peppered with great talent, including Mosaic, Human Nature, casts of “Phantom -- the Las Vegas Spectacular,” Terry Fator, Earl Turner and Lani Misalucha, “Jersey Boys,” Clint Holmes and Kelly Clinton Holmes, a collection that won’t be overshadowed by any kid.

'Las Vegas Celebrates the Music of Michael Jackson'

But if any of the acts in the nearly two-hour show before a suitably occupied theater embodied Jackson’s brilliance, it was this wiry child with adult skills and stage presence beyond his years. He simply killed “Dancing Machine,” singing in his own joyous voice and uncorking all of Jackson’s famous moves -- he moonwalked as effortlessly as he front-walked. As a member of the backing band told me after the show, during rehearsals young Elijah was the performer others in the show stopped to watch. Given the mercurial path Jackson’s career took after he and the rest of the Jackson 5 burst on the scene, when he was the same age Elijah is today, it was great to remember what all the fuss has been about. As show co-producer Steve Friess said from the stage, the production raised more than $100,000 for the Clark County Public Education Foundation to help fund fine arts programs in Las Vegas schools. It’s a charity effort that will help other kids realize their dreams of performing for wowed audiences, like the 11-year-old we watched this weekend.

More from the show:

*Black-suited, shuffling and a bit hunched over, Joe Jackson was on hand for a fairly chaotic star ceremony at Brenden Theatres at the Palms (the event would not have been complete without the mortar fire-level percussion of the Vegas Vanguard percussion ensemble). The Michael Jackson star will share space with such dignitaries as URL (the Ubiquitous Robin Leach, who shares a birth date -- Aug. 29, the day of and reason for, the show -- with Michael Jackson), Sylvester Stallone, Dennis Hopper and Major League Baseball pitcher Barry Zito. “I sure wish Michael could be here to see this,” is how I understood his comments to the media and horde pushing forward for every word. No LaToya Jackson, either. She was supposed to take part in the star giving. Evidently, she called during the day from L.A. saying she would not attend. No explanation given. She was missed. At least Robin, Johnny Brenden and Palms owner George Maloof were around to add a sense of normalcy to the proceedings. …

*The terrific Vegas vocal ensemble Mosaic, which tore it up with “Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'” from “Off the Wall,” is still trying to find a residence on the Strip, or somewhere suitable in Vegas. The crew is auditioning for the new NBC contest show “The Sing-Off,” which is set to premiere in October. The closest auditions to Las Vegas are the Sept. 19 sessions in Los Angeles. “The Sing-Off” contestants are all vocal groups. (Note to self: Ask Johnny Avello at Wynn to post odds on this show). …

*For the first time, the full casts of Human Nature at Imperial Palace and the guys from “Jersey Boys” appeared onstage together -- but not to sing. They were just crossing paths as Human Nature wrapped its two-song medley of “I Want You Back” and “ABC” to make way for the “Jersey Boys” with “I’ll Be There.” Dapperly dressed, they shook hands, disappointing those of us who would like to have seen an all-vocalist dust-up. …

*Fator never disappoints with the puppets, eh? He brought his “Beatle” puppet and sang the Paul McCartney/Jackson duet “The Girl Is Mine.” Not to detract from the performance or the show, but this has to be the worst song ever recorded by two musical geniuses in history. Fator followed with “Ben,” in his own voice, the first song he ever sang in front of an audience. As he said, that was easier to accomplish when he was 7. …

*I’ve not often seen Holmes and his wife, Kelly Clinton Holmes, sing together. They did that on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” and Holmes followed with “Human Nature,” solo. Holmes is the one performer who also performed in the 2001 USO benefit show, post-9/11, at Mandalay Bay. …

*Travis Cloer, Frankie Valli in “Jersey Boys,” is said to sing even higher than Valli in his prime. Hard to argue after his soaring medley today. Remember Sam Harris from “Star Search?” Cloer would have blown him away. …

*Zowie Bowie (the uber-tanned and charismatic Chris Phillips and Marley Taylor), headed to Monte Carlo next weekend for an extended residency at The Pub and Lance Burton Theatre. Their authentically crafted Old Vegas set deserves Strip headliner status, but they should drop the song they did Saturday: a lounge-like version of “Rock With You.” It was, “Rock! With youuuu. Aaaaall! Niiiiight!” Like that. When they started in, I instantly thought of Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine, and I know I’m not alone. Lose it now. Thank me later. …

*Inviting the Green Valley High School String Quartet and Las Vegas Mass Choir was an inspired move. The quartet played a sweet version of “Smooth Criminal.” The L.V. Mass Choir, remembered for their thunderous performance at President Obama’s appearance at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace this year, sang “Man in the Mirror.” That song would have closed the show, except Erich Bergen (co-producer, one of the “Jersey Boys” and a stickler for details) asked that the opening number, “The Way You Make Me Feel,” be redone for an upcoming DVD of the show. Holly Madison took part in the opening-opening but was gone by the closing-opening, if that makes sense.

*Judging by the attire in the audience, Jackson is going to be a popular Halloween costume this year, and for some, sadly, every day is Halloween.

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