TAMPA — It was always going to be a spectacle, letting Michael Jackson run away with the circus.
With Cirque du Soleil tackling Jackson's songbook, how could it not? From the first few minutes of Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour at the Tampa Bay Times Forum Tuesday night, we saw the King of Pop's face, or rather, his many faces, projected on screens.
Cherubic little boy with an anointed voice? Troubled master of our modern music lexicon? Who was he? The result was a mash-up of Jackson, both in songs and spirit.
"Michael, Michael, Michael," came a recorded chanting, almost like worship. Then came the Cirque antics, all seen through the love-fest lens that would have been Jackson's gleeful perspective.
Immortal, which sticks around for one more show tonight, alternated between solemn reverence and playful winking. It's probably the only way to approach such a confounding pop culture character.
Cirque's famous acrobatics and high-flying aerial work was intact, but Immortal was really more about dance and movement, letting Jackson's already cinematic work speak for itself. It might appeal most to rabid MJ fans eager to hear stuff that lives firmly off the party hits grid (Ben, the song about the rat, or Earth Song, or This Place Hotel).
To that end, things started kind of weird with Jackson singing "Have you seen my childhood?" A break-dancing narrator (superb at the hypnotic popping style called Animation) takes us to the gates of Neverland Ranch, and then lots of stuff happens with trains and carousels, and eventually there's a person in an eerily accurate Bubbles the Chimp suit, which will either delight you or give you nightmares for days.
The party starts to jam with a gangster medley. Cirque's dancers manage what should be a physically impossible lean during Smooth Criminal, and for Dangerous, we meet a dangerous lady indeed, who does fascinating things on a pole that might be illegal in some states.
The act closed on a high with a contortionist writhing in a lizardlike body sling to Is It Scary, followed by Thriller danced in all-white mummy gear. Things get real wispy again in the second act, with You Are Not Alone from that time Jackson married Lisa Marie Presley and got naked among all those Roman columns. Cirque performers twirled above the stage in a wash of silver lights. La, la, la.
But then! A GIANT PAIR OF PROP LOAFERS AND A SILVER GLOVE! And people popped out of them! And it was time for Beat It! And Bad! And dolloped between some more slow jams were bouncing gymnasts for Scream (the jamming A-side foil to the somber Childhood, by the way), and a rousing military march for They Don't Care About Us mashed with Privacy.
It was a necessary nod to the darkness, the court cases, the plastic surgery, the bad doctor and the tragic end. And before Billie Jean, Black or White and Man in the Mirror, we got one more necessary thing.
Immortal stripped the circus to remind everyone why we worship Michael, Michael, Michael: His child voice, isolated against a single piano track, singing "I'll be there."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.