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The inside scoop on Mandalay Bay’s new Michael Jackson Cirque show

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Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour runs throughout December at Mandalay Bay.
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Michael Jackson’s Immortal world tour is a floating sort of show. Time itself floats, drifting through Jackson’s 50-year lifespan with no sense of chronology or order.

A balloon carrying an animatronic Jackson hovers above the audience. Five comic figures, representing either the Jackson 5 or Jackson himself, drift in and out of the production. You’re asked, in Immortal, to allow your imagination to sort of float freely, as did the forever-young Michael. His ceaseless childhood and dreamy imagination are depicted throughout.

The Details

Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour
December 3-27
Dates and times vary, $50-$175
Mandalay Bay Events Center, 800-745-3000

The tour stops at Mandalay Bay Events Center for an extended stay December 3-27. In Las Vegas, the arena concert is a precursor to the resident show that will be staged across the hotel at Mandalay Bay Theater beginning in early 2013.

What translates from the big show to the more intimate version are far-off decisions. But the arena production, which I caught on opening night—October 2, in Montreal—is a vast and all-encompassing experience in which no expense has been spared.

The show begins with the five dancing Jacksons performing on a set resembling Neverland, a giant tree—what Jackson used to call a Giving Tree for its spiritually nourishing powers—set hugely in the middle as the fantasy’s epicenter. Midway through the show, those characters perform a medley of “I Want You Back” and “ABC,” dancing and miming the lyrics with a live band thumping behind them.

The live ensemble features several players from Jackson’s former studio and concert bands. The musical designer who lords over the live adaptation of Jackson’s recorded voice with the players onstage is Kevin Antunes, a master keyboardist and arranger. The show’s music director is Greg Phillinganes, also a keyboard ace and a Jackson collaborator for 30 years. Phillinganes was the music director on the Bad and Dangerous concert tours, and both Antunes and Phillinganes have worked with many of the top artists in contemporary music.

The musical narrative returns repeatedly to Neverland’s entrance as a kind of home base. After a somewhat tepid start, with a handful of acrobats walking up a brick wall in the same way you’d see performers in work that show’s distinctive stage, the show opens full throttle with explosives blowing back a large drape and dancers performing to a mashup of “Billie Jean” and “Smooth Criminal.”

Soon, Jackson’s voice painfully asks, “Have you seen my childhood?” as a Neverland-fashioned carnival plays out onstage and the balloon carrying his robotic self looms overhead.

As directed and choreographed by onetime Jackson dancer Jamie King, who performed on the 1992 Dangerous tour, all the Jackson favorites are rolled out. The familiar “Thriller” dance number is resurrected, though the mummified dancers don all-white costumes rather than the dingy attire from the famous video.

“Smooth Criminal” becomes a full-scale, Broadway-styled production number, with dancers performing the familiar forward lean across the stage. “Beat It” and “Bad” are pinned together in an ear-splitting rendition, as dancers inhabit Jackson’s giant black-and-white leather shoes and his trademark sequined glove. “Human Nature” is conveyed with dancers carrying glowing red hearts into the aisles as the audience sways.

There’s enough Cirque to satisfy traditionalists, as aerialists and gymnasts flipping from rings are summoned in for the latter parts of the show. Dancers bounce across a circular drum-styled platform that juts out from the main stage. A total of 52 dancers, acrobats, contortionists and aerialists fill the space.

Characteristic of Jackson’s eccentric lifestyle, a man inhabiting a Bubbles the chimp costume and acting as a club DJ makes repeated appearances. Some of the performances in the talent-laden Cirque cast are simply mind-blowing. One of the dancers spins about on one leg. A female cellist is moved center stage and manages physical and musical beauty. A burst of pyrotechnics closes the production as “Black or White” thunders.

Cirque has reminded us that Jackson was not merely a tragic figure, but an inspired and uniquely influential entertainment visionary. Cirque plays this show as big as any production in the company’s nearly 30-year history, requiring 40 trucks to haul the equipment, instruments, set pieces and costumes across the country.

Rightfully, Danielle Lamarre, Cirque’s chief executive officer, has said the show is a “rock concert.” True, the production is more reflective of a Lady Gaga performance than, say, Mystère. Those who have not been exposed to Cirque at all will easily float through the show, accepting the vaguely assembled order of events. But the show lacks the intimacy of Cirque shows set in theaters around the Strip, and at its heart the company specializes in up-close artistry. It began as street performance, even.

But Immortal is a big and broad, loudly and colorfully conceived biographical depiction of a mercurial artist. To see something more in line with traditional Cirque, wait for the resident show to hit Mandalay Bay in 2013. It’s a long time to wait, but in Jackson’s world, time floats at its own whim.

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