MJ Dazzles on Its Moonwalk Through the Paramount

His legacy is a complicated one, but there’s nothing unclear about the thunderous applause at this show: the Broadway touring musical MJ is a Thriller from the start. It performs at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre through December 17.  


Not too far into MJ the musical, the message couldn’t be clearer: Michael Jackson wanted the songs to be the focus, to speak for themselves, to be what people remembered him by. And the musical bearing his name, and created “by special arrangement” with his estate, would largely be doing the same. 

What that means is that Jackson fans should be positively on cloud nine as a barrage of his megahits (interspersed with some slightly less well-known ones) rocks the Paramount. It opens with Beat It, but MJ the musical is a Thriller from the start.

That’s driven principally by a whole stellar cast, among which three standouts quickly emerge. Roman Banks is stunning as MJ himself, with distinct mannerisms, annunciation, and a unique blend of shy confidence so reminiscent of Jackson’s. His tremendous singing and dancing put up a show on their own.

Another is Devin Bowles, whose dual portrayals of opposite father-figures (MJ’s father and a tour manager) are both stunningly convincing, even as the roles morph from one to the other in the same scene, and contextualize the narrative. 

Finally, there’s an addition so fresh he didn’t make it in the program: preteen Bane Griffith as Little MJ. Griffith joined the Broadway cast early this year but was apparently scheduled to bow out of the show’s first national tour earlier on; lucky us, he’s performing Seattle dates after all. (Since it wasn’t in the program, here’s Griffith’s bio from the tour: An eleven year old triple threat from Houston, Texas, made his Broadway debut on January 31, 2023. Also, his television debut this year on Abbott Elementary, an Emmy award winning sitcom. He’s is ecstatic to join MJ The Musical Tour and to continue honoring the “King of Pop”, Michael Jackson. IG: banegriffith.) Even the most tuned-in Abbott Elementary watchers will be forgiven if they missed him as “Choir Kid #1” in Abbott‘s “Educator of the Year” episode, in favor of Gregory Eddie’s unwanted victory, Melissa Schemmenti’s grasping-at-straws speechwriting, Janine Teagues’ undeserved smackdown, the return of all-star aide Ashley Garcia, or Barbara Howard’s continuing education under protest (“If you see any more weeping Millennials roaming the hallway, please: send ‘em my way”). But there’s no hiding in this one: Griffith is a star. His voice is phenomenal, including in a heart-filling duet (I’ll Be There) with Anastasia Talley as his mother; his dancing is tight; and his acting is at once cute, compelling, and convincing. 

They’re bolstered by a superb rest of the cast and design work to match. Bucking the trend in some tours as of late, there’s no boilerplate design work to be found here. Throughout key parts, projections and lighting added layers to the stage, reinforcing the dominance and ubiquity of Jackson’s music, the ever-presence of his fans and camera’s eye, and, at times, the depths of his loneliness. Thriller was a full-on stunner. Even still, scenes changed efficiently and fluidly, much like the precision movements we see MJ demanding in rehearsals. 


Like most of these stage biopics, this one occurs in a fictional bubble, so it’s helpful to know the setup. During final prep for his Dangerous tour, which was a mega international success but pointedly avoided touring in the U.S., Jackson gets roped into an exclusive (and fictional) MTV interview. The camera man is a total fanboy; the interviewer is sympathetic but clearly digging for a story. (She finds one in MJ’s crew talking, inadvertently on some hot mics, about his burgeoning painkiller use.) 

Roman Banks and the cast of MJ the musical. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

That interview setup gets him talking a bit. But his primary revelation is that he wants the music to speak for itself. On stage is his happy place. Music is his hideaway. Perfection is an outlet; and the only place MJ can do that is in his meticulously crafted creative chamber. 

And it’s that for me that’s the most interesting part of the stage story. 

Lynn Nottage — a talented and much-produced playwright (she’s topped the American Theatre annual lists of most-produced playwrights, sometimes sharing the title with the uber-prolific Lauren Gunderson), who was honored recently with her second Pulitzer Prize for Drama — had her work cut out for her with this challenge. How to write the book for a legacy-celebrating musical, produced with the blessing of the subject’s estate (as many of these things are, or with the blessing of its subject as with the recent Tina Turner Musical), that says something meaningful about its subject but still toes the line. Here, Nottage does that in a plenty convenient, but remarkably compelling, way: she sets it in 1992, when there’s a lot of drama starting to creep up, but the most problematic allegations are yet to come; when MJ’s breakout tracks had already happened, assuring an interesting and already iconic musician surrounded by intrigue, but still feeling the demands to do more, produce more. And, in a frequent segue into his past, to get to nothing less than perfection. 

It’s this that gifted playwright Nottage, together with director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, uses as a lever to detail — or speculate, it’s hard sometimes to tell which — the path of perfection, from obsessive and demanding father lording over a young Michael, to MJ himself, portrayed as obsessive and demanding as he lords over the rehearsal room as the Dangerous tour is about to launch. With everything on the line — eventually mortgaging his beloved Neverland Ranch — MJ insisted, insisted, insisted on perfection. But what did that mean? As MJ presents it, technical tightness, clearly; but also the freedom to roam, fully, to realize whatever creations his mind went to. Sounds lovely, but it didn’t sit well with his business manager, tasked with the responsibility of figuring out how to pay for the realization of the star’s virtually limitless imagination; nor with the tour manager, balancing the staging of the tour with the safety and sanity of those working on it. 

Which leads to a key line of questions, asked repeatedly but left unanswered (for the better, I think), in MJ: how do you rein in genius? Should you? How do you protect it from itself? Can you? 

I don’t know what really happened with the real Jackson. Certainly the show presents him in a sympathetic light. The extremely troubling child sexual abuse claims (which would predominantly come to light later, and are referred to only obliquely as “the allegations” in the musical) never found any real resolution, in the courts or anywhere else. Was Jackson a tragic, vulnerable, and too-convenient target of such claims? That’s certainly where the musical would land. It paints the great artist as, essentially, robbed of a childhood by his father’s demands and relentless quest for fame; desperate to work a sense of playfulness throughout his life, even as he strove for perfection; and motivated, deeply, by giving disadvantaged children a leg up, through direct contributions, time and energy, and significant charitable donations. His quirks, viewed as creepy by many, were spun here as red herrings in some cases, and the star’s attempts to turn tragedy (including severe burns that necessitated some medical interventions that themselves spun into speculations) into triumph — or at least comedic relief as a prankster. 

Where’s the truth? I have no idea; and, in general, perhaps MJ should be viewed as an informed and compelling piece of fiction. Maybe it’s an outline: a framework for a great and complicated life; a study on unpacking artistic pressures and what to do with them; a cautionary tale on leaving genius too free to devour itself while standing in awe of what it created. It’s useful in any of those roles, fact or fiction. 

Predator on vulnerabilities? Victim of his own? I don’t know. MJ paints this mysterious character in a more sympathetic light than decades of sensational coverage, certainly. As a ’90s kid, I grew up with him talked about more as a creep than as a musical icon; a man divorced from his musical creations even as they blared from car radios and boombox speakers everywhere. After seeing the show, I’m grateful to have received another angle into the artistry. 

MJ is a musical befitting the music. And it’s a damn good show.  

With design work by Derek McLane (scenic), Natasha Katz (lighting), Peter Nigrini (projections), Paul Tazewell (costumes), Gareth Owen (sound), Charles G. LaPointe (wigs and hair), and Joe Dulude II (makeup). Music directed by Victor Simonson; orchestrations and arrangements by David Holcenberg. 

MJ runs through 12/17 at the Paramount Theatre, in Downtown Seattle. Tickets ($63+) here. Accessibility notes: main restrooms downstairs and upstairs are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restroom on the main floor. Theatre main level and some common areas are wheelchair accessible. Audio described performance at 12/10 matinee; open-captioned performance at 12/10 evening show; ASL-interpreted performance at 12/17 matinee.

Run time: 2 hours 40 minutes, with intermission.

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of