Thriller Live is not a Michael Jackson musical – that is, it’s not Michael Jackson’s musical. Instead, it’s a tribute show co-produced by Adrian Grant, a Jackson fan who began by staging tribute shows, went on to meet the man himself, wrote a book on him, and has now brought Thriller Live to the West End.
Nor is Thriller Live based solely on the title album. Instead, it’s a “jukebox show”: a line of greatest hits from the Jackson 5 , through the golden days of Off The Wall and Thriller, to the rocky 90s solos.
It starts in Jackson 5 mode, with 13-year old Kieran Alleyne as young Michael, backed by his brothers delivering a Motown nostalgia-fest: I Want You Back, The Love You Save, ABC, all choreographed in the happy style of a Ready Steady Go! episode. It’s cute, kicking and retro, but also highlights a danger that looms large in this show: that even as a tot, Jackson was supremely gifted performer – both as a singer and a dancer – and this tribute, however well intended, inevitably pales by comparison.
As if unsure of its own worth, Thriller Live keeps reminding us of Jackson’s: record-breaking sales figures flash on a video screen, and singers – sounding oddly like museum guides – break off between numbers to tell about his achievements.
Part one rounds off with a non-stop medley of what seems to be every track from Off The Wall, with a glitterball and white disco suits. Singer Roger Wright has a soaring, modulated Motown voice, but even he can’t stop this from sounding like a compilation album by Telstar.
But things look up in the second half. Denise Pearson, formerly of 80s pop outfit 5 Star, (“the British Jackson 5”) delivers a sassy rendition of The Way You Make Me Feel and makes it her own. The other numbers in this half are, ironically, strongest when they slavishly copy their model – because the choreography for Beat It, Smooth Criminal, and Thriller actually works on stage, lending some backbone that’s lacking in the earlier numbers. Ricko Baird makes a very slick lead dancer, but you can’t help but miss the syncopated, fast-and-loose popshots of the Gloved One.
• This article was amended on 26 January 2009. We said the Michael Jackson tribute show Thriller Live was directed by Adrian Grant. Adrian Grant was the executive director and co-producer; Gary Lloyd directed and choreographed the performance. This has now been corrected.