“There are a lot of strange stories making the rounds,” says a documentary filmmaker interviewing Michael Jackson.
Michael Jackson was such a magnet for strange stories that they nearly obliterated his gift. Yet in defensively brushing off the ones that don’t matter while pointedly ignoring the one that does, the new musical “MJ,” which opened on Tuesday at the Neil Simon Theater, may be the strangest Michael Jackson story yet.
Not all strangeness is bad, of course, and within the confines of the biographical jukebox genre, “MJ,” with a book by Lynn Nottage, is actually pretty good — for a while. Directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, whose ballet background has found a natural outlet in dance musicals like “An American in Paris,” the show starts with confidence and verve in a natural setting: the rehearsal room. There, Jackson, along with his dancers, backup singers and band, is in the final stages of preparation for his 1992 Dangerous tour, a four-continent, 15-month marathon.
That framing means that our first look at the musical’s version of Jackson is as a man at work, without the distraction of Bubbles the chimp, the Elephant Man bones, the hyperbaric chamber, the fading skin color, the disappearing nose — or the accusations of pedophilia that would begin to emerge a year later, at first in tabloids and then in lawsuits and eventually in police investigations.
As such, we get the joy of discovery, both of Jackson before the fall and of Myles Frost, a real find in the role. Singing “Beat It” as he enters, Frost offers not just a willowy simulacrum of the star in perfect copies (by the designer Paul Tazewell) of his classic regalia — black jacket, gold brocade, tilted fedora, white socks scrunched to the ankles — but an eerie mimicry of his mannerisms. The breathy voice; the head-down, eyes-up gaze; the interjectory squeals and yelps: Frost has them down cold.
Perhaps too cold. Absent any deeper revelation of the singer’s character, Frost’s performance of the songs — which include MTV-era chartbusters like “Bad,” “Billie Jean,” “Man in the Mirror” and “Thriller” as well as less-familiar numbers — soon begins to seem animatronic, as if he were created by Disney imagineers. It doesn’t help that there are so many of them; 37 titles are listed in the program, some barely one-verse samples.
But Wheeldon’s choreography — performed by Frost along with a superb if amazingly jacked ensemble — remains compelling longer, offering a three-dimensional version of what most of us have seen only from distant arena seats or in dark videos on depthless screens. (The show’s “Michael Jackson movement” is credited to two additional choreographers, Rich + Tone Talauega.) The stage patterns are far more varied and expressive than in similar musicals, scoring points without words as they deliver the thrills and, following the biomusical road map, pave the way between present and past.
Take the sequence in which the Jackson 5 makes a smash appearance singing “ABC” at an Apollo Theater amateur night in 1969. Seamlessly Wheeldon swirls the giddy brothers from the stage to a scene of celebration in their hotel room, at least until their perfectionist father (Quentin Earl Darrington) demands, with the warmth of a cult leader, that despite their exhaustion they rehearse into the night. When the preteen Michael (Christian Wilson at the performance I saw) stands up to him and gets slapped so hard he falls to the floor, his mother (Ayana George) comforts him by singing “I’ll Be There” as he goes to bed.
What Katherine Jackson’s responsibility might have been, besides providing a lullaby, is not considered; she is still alive. In any case, after all this, Wheeldon returns us to the 1992 rehearsal room with a trenchant gesture: The dancers pull the linens away to reveal the bed as a bunch of tour trunks.
Jackson’s was undoubtedly a hard childhood. Though Nottage uses clichés from the jukebox playbook to dramatize that story — including an interviewer to prompt the reminiscences (Whitney Bashor) and three actors to divvy up the role at different ages (Tavon Olds-Sample is delightful as the teenage Michael) — she does so crisply and in a format that makes it seem almost natural. Having members of the 1992 entourage take all the supporting roles in the flashback scenes is both efficient and convincing.
But the tale is mostly humorless, a problem not alleviated by Jackson’s occasional impish antics (he shoots a water pistol at his business manager) or the constant underlining of the emotional argument. (“You sang that song like you’ve been living with heartbreak all of your life,” Berry Gordy tells the preteen Michael after he performs “I Want You Back.”) As the joys of the early scenes begin to fade, “MJ” settles for baldly providing, in the relatively small space allotted to words, an avalanche of astonishing and…