Most Cirque du Soleil productions are recognized more for their acrobatic hijinks than the accompanying musical interludes, but in the case of the new “Michael Jackson: THE IMMORTAL World Tour,” the score is just as important as the leaps and somersaults.
Running June 29 through July 1 at Philips Arena, “IMMORTAL” was envisioned as a tribute to Jackson after the pop star’s unexpected passing in 2009. (The anniversary of the King of Pop’s death is this week.) Jackson had long wanted to find a way to work with Cirque du Soleil. An early champion of the Montreal-based troupe, he attended his first Cirque performance in the 1980s, and he and the producers became mutual fans. After his death, the Cirque team was able to get the rights to his entire music library from his estate and family. “IMMORTAL” premiered in Montreal last October, and Jackson’s family members have seen the production and approved it.
And that’s not the only Michael Jackson tribute in Atlanta over the next few weeks. Todd Gray, the pop star’s personal photographer from 1979 to 1984, will show his portfolio and perform Act I of his piece “Caliban in the Mirror” at the Hagedorn Foundation Gallery on July 13 at 5:30 p.m.
As written and directed by Emmy Award winner Jamie King, “IMMORTAL” has a different feel from what most people associate with Cirque du Soleil. In addition to the traditional array of aerialists and contortionists, it features a live band and dancers. In a cast with more than 60 performers, most are dancers — more than in a typical Cirque piece. “It’s Cirque meets a rock concert,” says Cirque spokeswoman Laura Silverman. “We hope that people are open-minded.”
More than two dozen numbers are spread throughout the evening, with music from Jackson and his childhood band, the Jackson 5. The songs range from “Thriller,” featuring the noted original choreography, to the ballad “Ben,” which celebrates Jackson’s love of animals. A “mega mix” number combines many of his most noted hits — “Beat It,” “Can You Feel It,” “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” “Billie Jean” and “Black or White” — before “IMMORTAL” climaxes with one of Jackson’s more personal songs, “The Man in the Mirror.”
Silverman sees lots of parallels between Jackson and Cirque. “They are both mystical and have a dreamlike element,” she says. “They are both over the top and theatrical, yet share themes such as hopefulness. It seems like such a natural partnership.”
“IMMORTAL” has a cast and crew from 16 countries, with a few Atlanta connections. Former Atlantan Travis Payne, who danced with Jackson and was a producer of the film “Michael Jackson: This Is It,” choreographed this production. “It’s great to have him here working on this to continue Michael’s vision and voice,” says Silverman. “He was right next to Jackson much of his career.” Musician Mike Phillips, part of the live band, is also a former Atlantan.
Unlike most touring Cirque shows, this one has a short shelf life — it’s in town only for a weekend run. After that, it’s on to another city. “IMMORTAL” will hit Mexico later this summer before moving to Europe with an October London gig.
Silverman finds that, whatever people think of Jackson, they embrace his music and pioneering spirit wherever the show plays. She says it’s not uncommon for audiences to sing along at various stages.