Broadway in Cincinnati’s 'MJ The Musical' to Provide Theatrical Take on the Creative Genius of Michael Jackson

When the tour of MJ The Musical lands at the Aronoff, you'll see a show with Tony Award-winning lighting design that tells the story of the artistry and early life of musician, singer and dancer Michael Jackson.

Aug 23, 2023 at 5:14 am
click to enlarge Roman Banks as Michael Jackson in MJ The Musical. - Photo: Matthew Murphy
Photo: Matthew Murphy
Roman Banks as Michael Jackson in MJ The Musical.

This story is featured in CityBeat's Aug. 23 print edition.

After seeing a theater production, you’re likely to recall the acting, the scenery and the costumes. But if it weren’t for effective — and often dramatic — lighting, you wouldn’t see any of it. In fact, lighting is a key factor in effective theatrical storytelling. When the tour of MJ The Musical lands at the Aronoff, you'll see a show with Tony Award-winning lighting design that tells the story of the artistry and early life of musician, singer and dancer Michael Jackson, including recreations of more than 25 of his hits. Natasha Katz, who has designed lighting for more than 60 Broadway shows and ballet productions, talked by telephone with CityBeat recently to describe her process. 

She starts with the script. Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage wrote the book for MJ The Musical. “I just read it from the storytelling and emotional point of view,” Katz says. “I try to get back to my first reaction, the first time I saw a show onstage. That’s the best way I can react to what the audience is going through.” Then she seeks out the director’s vision. “That’s the most important. Christopher Wheeldon is going to have a completely different vision for MJ than a different director.” Katz and Wheeldon, a director and award-winning choreographer, have collaborated on numerous productions over the past 20 years, including the 2015 stage adaptation of An American in Paris, for which she won a Tony for her lighting design.

“The director works first with the set designer, before the lighting designer,” Katz explains. “Then I can figure out what the environment is and what they’re trying to communicate. Some of this is extremely technical. Some of it is about real estate — where lights will be, where we need to have them to tell the story.”

She gives Wheeldon all the credit for telling stories through body movement. “That is exactly what he has done with MJ. We work hand-in-glove. He is able to convey the emotion of somebody, what they’re feeling, without words, without music. You multiply that by a million when you add music and light and scenery and costumes.”

MJ the Musical begins in a rehearsal room in 1992 as Jackson prepares for his “Dangerous World Tour.” “In the blink of an eye we go from a naturalistic setting to the first performance by the Jackson 5 on the Ed Sullivan Show [in 1969]. That’s told through projection and a light change, but also through the movement of the body.” Katz adds, “It’s what you can do in the theater in a split second. MJ’s story is not told with a lot of lumbering scenery. In this show, somebody just turns upstage, and the room has transformed.”

Katz worked closely with the show’s scenic designer, Derek McLane (who also designed Moulin Rouge, another touring show that recently dazzled Cincinnati audiences). “For a flashback, he built hidden lights into the scenery. They can look like chasing marquee lights that you might see at a theater, especially back to the days of Motown and the Apollo Theater in New York City. They are encased in the scenery, so you don’t see them until we turn them on. That gives audience members a feeling that they’re being brought to the theater and back in time.”

Of course, Michael Jackson’s own creativity — choreography and intricately staged videos — have been key inspirations for this production. Katz went through all of his videos over and over. “It’s kind of by osmosis that you get a sense of what he was trying to do. In the show we also replicate many of the iconic moments from his videos and concerts. We’re not doing imitations of Michael Jackson. This show is our interpretation of him, it’s the story that our book writer Lynn Nottage is trying to tell about his life. There might be one small piece of scenery from the Jackson 5’s appearance on Ed Sullivan, so it’s not an exact replica. The costumes might be similar but not exactly the same. They’re heightened theatrically for audiences seeing our show. We’re not a Las Vegas imitation show in any way, shape or form. It is really a theatrical extravaganza with a very solid story to it. It’s more an interpretation of what the book writer and all of us feel through the eyes of Michael Jackson.”

Cincinnati is just the second stop of MJ the Musical’s national tour. (It debuted in Chicago in August). Katz says the show has a few modest tweaks for touring. “In some ways, it’s better. It’s amazing on Broadway, so it’s super-amazing on tour. This show feels so original. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before — and I’m working on it.”

Katz says MJ the Musical has deepened and broadened her own perceptions of Jackson’s work. “There’s no question about it. The deeper and deeper that I got into the show, there is no question that he was one of a kind, a genius. Nobody else could do what he has done. Understanding all his groundbreaking musical ideas and thoughts and sounds — I really didn’t realize it until I worked on this show.” Cincinnati audiences will witness the full array of Jackson’s artistry, lit spectacularly by Katz. 

MJ The Musical will be presented by Broadway in Cincinnati at the Aronoff Center for the Arts from Sept. 5-17. Info: cincinnatiarts.org.


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