The event was half-tribute, half-Cirque spectacular, a sort of sparkly seance for the late King of Pop. Within the first five minutes, clips of Jackson’s videos were playing in rapid succession on the screen, his life flashing before our eyes: there’s the “Thriller” claws, there’s the lean, there’s the moonwalk.
This is what the 10,000-plus people who packed the almost-sold-out Verizon Centercame to see. Yes, they came for the Cirque trappings, which were reliably Cirque-like in skill and scale: the trapeze artists, the contortionists, the acrobats. There were pyrotechnics of every flavor, strobe lights, fireworks and mood-setting smoke. But the thing about a Michael Jackson-themed show is this: The best special effect is Michael Jackson.
The moments that captured that ethos were the night’s highlights: a sprawling, 1920s-style rendition of “Smooth Criminal,” complete with dancers on wires; a “Billie Jean” that was costumed to show off the spot-on choreography, with socks and gloves that glowed in the dark. Jackson’s physics-defying dance moves are a perfect fit for the talents of the Cirque performers, whose Gumby bodies can apparently go boneless on command.
That said, Cirque wasted time on lesser-known songs most fans neither miss nor remember. Some numbers were weighed down with imagery so concrete you could have paved a street with it. Videos of starving children played during “They Don’t Care About Us,” a globe with a bandage on it was a centerpiece of “Earth Song” and for “Black or White,” dancers ran through the audience with flags of countries from around the world.
What really got the crowd leaning forward, and for one three-song stretch actually on its feet, weren’t the Cirque-du-So-Strange feats but the glimmers of the deeply familiar: the fedora, the white socks, the red leather jacket, the single glove.
In fact, the least Cirque-esque moment of the night may have won the most applause: a video of young Jackson singing “I’ll Be There.” The stage was completely deserted. It was just Michael, chipmunk-cheeked and Afro-haired, his face blown up as big as the arena wall.
A woman in the back belted out, “WE LOVE YOU, MICHAEL!” and, quietly, some people started to sing along. “Just call my nay-yay-yame, and I’ll be there . . .”
As if hoping he’d make good on the promise, the audience chanted “MI-CHAEL, MI-CHAEL, MI-CHAEL” as his face faded from the screen, and then they kept on chanting into the darkness.