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Critics weigh in on Michael Jackson legacy for 'Immortal' Cirque show

This is a big, weird week for Michael Jackson: Not only is another posthumous LP, Xscape, being released to controversial fanfare, but the tumblers in Cirque du Soleil are bringing the high-flying King of Pop tribute "Immortal" to the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Tuesday and Wednesday. With so much MJ back in play, Times critics Sean Daly and Stephanie Hayes weigh in on the state of his legacy, the theatrical allure of his hits and why Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough is actually a pretty great makeout song. (No, really.)

Sean: Okay, Stephanie, let's address the Elephant Man's bones in the room: In 2014, five years after his death, is Michael Jackson's legacy now wholly untarnished of squirmy allegations and overt weirdness? At the very least, have we forgotten that his poor nose looked like an electrical socket at the end?

Stephanie: His legacy will never be wholly untarnished, of course, but there is a twisted benefit of distance. Because he's physically not here anymore, we're not subjected to the daily paparazzi grind of Michael trudging out of court in his billowy blue jammies escorted by a personal umbrella handler, of CNN news tickers and freak of the week stories with sketchy doctors. But when The Way You Make Me Feel comes on at happy hour, everyone is singing and it's time for another flaming Dr. Pepper. It's the classic question: Can you separate artist from art?

Sean: Absolutely you can, and we do. Elvis, Cobain, Winehouse — sinners on Earth, sainted in death. Forgiveness, or at least memory loss, is part of the human condition. I cover a lot of concerts, and when the pre-show music kicks into a Michael tune — ESPECIALLY The Way You Make Me Feel — the response is universally euphoric, not a judge or wrinkled nose or apprehensive dancing feet to be found. And as the dad of preteen girls who adored MJ as soon as they saw Thriller, I have no trouble helping them celebrate all the "good stuff" he brought us. I imagine "Immortal" will do the same.

Stephanie: Well, for all the tasty hit morsels, "Immortal" is also an exercise in listening closely. I talked to the show's musical designer, Kevin Antunes, for some insight into the structure. Cirque is about visual storytelling with music as a guide. So when it's time for Dangerous, we meet a "dangerous female lead," Kevin said. And he told me the show busts out things like Michael's isolated child voice and sobby acoustic piano to make a Cirque-worthy emotional punctuation.

Sean: Yeah, those trampoline nuts can make you sob. I saw Cirque's Beatles tribute, "Love," in Vegas. You can't fault that songbook, of course, but I remember being particularly excited to see what they did with George Harrison's While My Guitar Gently Weeps. The Quiet One was always my fave Fab. I was a puddle. For "Immortal," built via another peerless catalog of hits, I'm geeking out about the Smooth Criminal treatment. It's not my favorite MJ song, but it's nothing less than the sound of a man with more ideas than a mere mortal, a thoroughly over-the-top look at genius run amok. Here's hoping Cirque blows out the budget for that one.

Stephanie: Oh, they will. The audience should expect lots of mashups, elements from different songs slowed down, sped up, all smushed together — for instance, the female vocals from In the Closet are set to the same tempo as Dangerous. Jacko and Cirque exist in harmony, Kevin said, because the songs, performances and videos are so cinematic in nature. "You can take any one of Michael's dances and put it in a Cirque performance and it works," he said.

Sean: So Cirque is just like the Daly girls or the unabashed revelers at a Katy Perry show. This is not the time to expect a balanced look at his messy life. Cirque is an unrepentant fan.

Stephanie: To say the least. Kevin admitted to abject terror in touching anything made by Michael, whom he calls "the truth." The undertaking sounds freaky and big. Made me glad that the scariest thing I have to do is hear about your choices for Michael make-out songs.

Sean: Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough is the aural equivalent of a spin on the Himalaya — made for squeezing and flirting and, to borrow one of your words, smushing. It's the sound of pure summer-romance joy, all that sweet, sexy energy. Or maybe I'm just a total don't-date-me nutjob.

Stephanie: Ladies, line forms to the left.

Follow Sean and Stephanie on Twitter at @seandalypoplife and @stephhayes.

If You Go

Michael Jackson: Immortal

Cirque du Soleil performs "Michael Jackson: Immortal" at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. $50-$125. (813) 301-2500.

Critics weigh in on Michael Jackson legacy for 'Immortal' Cirque show 05/13/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 15, 2014 10:49am]
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