Michael Jackson One by Cirque du Soleil
At a Glance
What is it?
A stunning Cirque du Soleil show featuring the music of Michael Jackson.
Where is it?
In the main showroom at Mandalay Bay on the South Strip.
Is it worth the cost?
Tickets range from $69 to $180 and are worth every penny.
Why should I see this show?
Because you can set aside all the stuff you have heard about Michael Jackson and just enjoy the show.
What else do I need to know?
“Thriller,” “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” “Bad,” “Smooth Criminal”… do I need to go on?
What’s the bottom line?
A great show about a problematic guy.
For the bulk of this review, we’re going to set aside all the problematic stuff about Michael Jackson and just focus on the show because in the storm of tabloid headlines that dominated the later years of Michael Jackson’s life and his untimely (if not terribly unexpected) death in 2009, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that he was, undeniably, a musical and entertainment genius. There is a reason that his “Thriller” is the best-selling album of all time, with more than 45 million copies sold around the world. His impacts on pop music and pop culture are almost too big to comprehend and coming up with a proper showcase for all of it seemed impossible.
But Cirque du Soleil is good at impossible and they have constructed a show at Mandalay Bay that is both a fitting tribute to Jackson’s musical legacy and a stunning piece of pop entertainment in its own right.
The theater has been redone from its “Lion King” and “Mamma Mia!” days to include massive video project walls flanking the stage and speakers built into the seat backs in front of you and in the headrests. The result is that you are virtually surrounded by sight and sound, immersed in the action that takes place on all sides and above.
There is a storyline of sorts that involves four young adults who are trying to rescue stolen bits of Jackson’s iconic costumes – the rhinestone studded glove, the black fedora, the sunglasses, and the loafers with sparkly socks. They are battled along the way by random bad guys and, at times, the props themselves.
But it is the King of Pop’s songs that take center stage here with remixed and remastered versions of many of his biggest hits. Each is paired with a set piece featuring acrobats, aerialists, gymnasts, dancers, magicians, and other visual wonders that evoke the visuals created by Jackson in his videos or concerts instead of simply rehashing them in a live setting.
The first couple of numbers are a bit of Cirque’s throw-it-all-on-the-stage-and-see-what-sticks production strategy, with things happening everywhere you look during “Beat It” and “Tabloid Junkie.” But the first truly unforgettable moment happens a few minutes in during the lesser known “Stranger in Moscow.” Rope artists twirl during a winter scene that builds from a few virtual flakes on the video projection walls to a full-on snowstorm inside the theater, complete with actual bits of frozen water drifting down on the audience. It’s a breathtaking moment.
And they keep coming from there. “Bad” features a riff on the gangs in the video, riding in on zip lines and bouncing around on what can best be described as a giant rubber band; “Smooth Criminal” has a team of gymnasts doing wild flips on an inflatable stage; an absolutely genius-level animator (the dance style) twists and turns his way through a solo set to a mashup of “Human Nature” and “Never Can Say Goodbye” (that had better be on the inevitable soundtrack); “Earth Song” uses a giant screen to project dramatic shadows that seem to blend with one another in impossible ways; “Dirty Diana” has a pole dancer doing a PG version of the style; a team of acrobats uses hats in a twirling, twisting sleight of hand routine with “Wanna Be Startin’ Something;” and so on.
In a show full of standout moments there are a few that really take things to a different, incredible level. “Billie Jean” pays homage to the lighted sidewalk visuals in the original music video with dancers in lighted suits walking up walls and strobing across the otherwise darkened stage while “Thriller” enhances Cirque’s fairly standard trampoline routine with a zombie and graveyard setting.
The latter is a terrific example of how the production uses the iconic choreography to dramatic effect, weaving it in and out of the staging in moments that will spark the sense memory of just about anyone who ever saw one of Jackson’s videos. The action subtly moves from the trampolines to the front of the stage and suddenly the dancers are doing the full routine that inspired many an ’80s teenager to get up and move like a zombie. And the moment in “Smooth Criminal” where the entire company goes into a gravity defying lean is nothing less than ovation-worthy.
The emotional capper is with a brilliantly realistic hologram of Jackson dancing and seemingly interacting with others on stage during the still-inspirational “Man in the Mirror.” I’m not ashamed to say that I got a little teary eyed, not over the loss of the admittedly damaged man but over the void that loss created in the world of popular culture.
Which brings up an important point, or three. The production touches briefly on some of the lesser scandals in Jackson’s life, from his bid to buy the Elephant Man bones to his supposed predilection for sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, but the bigger scandals are left unmentioned. There is a little bit of hagiography, but for the most part they don’t attempt to turn Jackson into some sort of saint. They just let his music and imagery do the talking and the moon-walking.
The question these days is whether or not you can set aside everything you have heard about Jackson and still enjoy his music. If you can’t, no one is going to blame you for not seeing this show.
In the end you probably have to be at least passingly familiar with, and not completely averse to, Jackson’s music to appreciate this show. If that’s you, your reaction may be like mine to LOVE, the Cirque production featuring music by The Beatles, which is that its fine and many of the set pieces are cool but it doesn’t really speak to my generation of music appreciation.
This show totally does. I was in high school when “Thriller” came out in 1982 and was one of those geeks trying to emulate the zombie choreography. Jackson’s music, dance, and style helped to shape my tastes and therefore it is difficult to view ONE objectively outside of that lens. Again, this requires me to shut off the portion of my brain saying “but he was…” and just tap my feet to the music.
So take the following with as many generational and artistic preference grains of salt as you’d like: Michael Jackson ONE by Cirque du Soleil is the best show in Las Vegas and one of the most exciting, awe-inspiring, and joyful shows anywhere. In a word: thrilling.