Watching another tribute show to Michael Jackson makes comparisons inevitable. But oddly I find I’m comparing it, not to the Gloved One himself, but to another tribute show. Yep, I’m judging the fake Michael Jackson in “HIStory” against the fake Michael Jackson who wowed us in “Thriller” last year. If this carries on much longer, I fear I’ll start watching videos of Jackson to assess him against his mimics, writes LESLEY STONES.
So “HIStory” is in town, and boy, its Australian presenters Showtime must be livid that “Thriller” beat them to it.
While “Thriller” was a tribute show with some narrative of Jackson’s life woven through it, “HIStory” is pure concert. One man, his backing band, half a dozen dancers and no narration. And it works really well because Michael-mimic Kenny Wizz is excellent.
He looks like Jackson, even when he dances down the aisles up close to the audience. He moves like him, sounds like him, grabs his gold lamé-covered crotch and peers out from behind dangling strands of hair.
Californian Kenny Wizz is billed as the world’s most highly acclaimed Jackson impersonator, so I’m watching him and trying to remember how well Ricko Baird compared in “Thriller”. Difficult to say, because Baird only handled a few of the songs while other imitators shared the rest. Wizz, however, has the talent, looks and charisma to carry the entire show.
Inevitably your eyes are glued to this magnetic figure, so you barely notice the seven-piece band except to realise they’re absolutely perfect. They should be – they’ve been picked from musicians from around the world. There’s a South African in there too – Dale Scheepers on keyboard and vocals. Yet it’s percussionist Johnson Oketade who grabs your attention when he struts forward to do some streetwise rapping.
The dancers are all locals and act as if they can’t believe they’re on stage with Michael Jackson. Who has the heart to tell them that they’re not? Sadly they’re a letdown. Choreography by Claire van Niekerk is pedestrian rather than challenging, and I doubt any of these dancers would have survived the gruelling auditions the real Jackson shows demanded. Push them harder, for heaven’s sake, they’re supposed to be backing one of the world’s greatest showmen.
Staid choreography was also an initial problem in the rival show “Thriller”, but there the moves grew steadily more exciting, and it beat “HIStory” hands down. It’s great to have a local touch in an international show, but seriously, it’s the weak point. And when one of the dancers duets with Wizz, there’s absolutely no spark between them. Her dreadful dress didn’t help either – she looked as if she’d wandered in off the set of “Carmen”.
The quality gap was cemented when Wizz thanked his band and the lighting and sound engineers, then thanked the dancers en masse without remembering their names. I didn’t either.
There are other flaws that small tweaks can correct. For some songs, background images play on giant screens, but the lighting is too bright for the audience to see them. Mostly, though, the lights and sound are superb and the singing is impeccable. Highlights are “Smooth Criminal” and “Billie Jean”, which, strangely enough, were highlights in “Thriller” too. Wizz does “Billie Jean” brilliantly, pulling on a single glove and donning his fedora before performing in a sharp spotlight.
“HIStory” is making its world premiere in Johannesburg, and perhaps that’s because South African audiences are suckers for theatre that doesn’t require you to think and don’t find someone pretending to be someone else in the least bit weird. Otherwise the Barnyard wouldn’t be such an institution.
Anyway, “HIStory” is fun, slick and entertaining. And it works so well because every time a new number starts, people turn to each other and whisper: “I love this one!” Of course, we do. Jackson was a genius and his mimics are pretty damn excellent too. DM
“HIStory” runs at the Joburg Theatre until 13 February.
Read more of Lesley’s writing at her great website.
Photographs by Craig Owen.
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