Michael Jackson: THE IMMORTAL World Tour, by Cirque du Soleil
WORCESTER — A constellation of stars dance their way across the night sky in a graceful aerial ballet to the strains of “Human Nature.” A human “bookworm” bends, stretches, and contorts her way through the pages of the world’s largest storybook to the tune of “Is It Scary.” A familiar looking chimpanzee skitters and tumbles across the stage exhorting the crowd to its feet during a medley of classic hits, including “Man in the Mirror.” Cirque du Soleil, meet Michael Jackson.
The famous Montreal spectacle factory has teamed up with Jackson’s estate to create one of its patented gravity-defying extravaganzas. Mimes, acrobats, dancers, contortionists, and more move to the pulsating beat of the King of Pop’s catalog in “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour by Cirque du Soleil,” which comes to the TD Garden Friday and Saturday.
As Jackson’s vocals pump out of the sound system accompanied by a live band — which includes several musicians who worked with Jackson — “Immortal” is a riot of activity as winged creatures frolic, the gates of Neverland serve as a backdrop, futuristic robots dance in lockstep, and smooth criminals synchronously slink as video of Jackson plays out on screen.
Jackson made clear throughout his career that he was an ardent fan of theatrical grandeur. He was also someone who believed in the almost magical power of art, music, and fantasy to help improve the world. So it comes easily to many of the people involved with the show to state with confidence that Jackson himself would have enjoyed “Immortal.”
During the show’s recent stop here, from his perch atop the elaborate tiered stage, engulfed by keyboards, “Immortal” musical director Greg Phillinganes says of Jackson succinctly, “He loved the big show.”
Phillinganes, a veteran session musician who played keyboards on many of Jackson’s albums including “Thriller” and “Off the Wall,” and hand-picked the “Immortal” band, says Jackson was, unsurprisingly, a big Cirque du Soleil fan.
“He had seen all their shows and brought the kids to see them in later years,” says Phillinganes, who has also played with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Eric Clapton. “He had even been to headquarters in Montreal twice. And the last time he was there he didn’t want to leave the costume wing. They had to pull him out. I think it’s a good combination, especially because he actually was at one point in talks with them about possibly doing something.”
“Immortal” began coming together not long after Jackson died in 2009, with writer and director Jamie King, a veteran choreographer and creative director who had worked with Jackson, Prince, and Madonna, among others. King brought in many artists — costumers, musicians, choreographers who had worked with Jackson — to help construct a tribute to his legacy. For the key ingredient, the music, King hired keyboardist Kevin Antunes to create the show’s soundtrack as musical designer.
It wasn’t even a dream come true for the New Bedford native and Northeastern alum, since the self-confessed “world’s biggest Michael Jackson fan” never could have dreamed of something like this happening to him: He was given all of Jackson’s master tapes in order to create the arrangements.
A vault was built in a studio for him and, like a mad scientist in his lab, Antunes went to work, mashing up classic and deep cuts, stripping tunes back to just Jackson’s unadorned vocals, pairing the beat of one song to another’s melody. “I was like a kid in a candy store,” says Antunes by phone from the Paris stop of Madonna’s “MDNA” tour, for which he is serving as musical director. “You can change things up, but you always keep Michael’s voice and his initial intent first and then musically and rhythmically you can tie that together in a new and fresh way to give the audience a different perspective into his musical legacy.”
Antunes says he was pinching himself for months listening to “these treasures from the vaults” as he would isolate Jackson’s vocals on such songs as “I’ll Be There” or find alternate takes of familiar numbers such as “ABC” to use.
“I wanted the fans to have that same experience that I did, to be able to hear Michael by himself and go: ‘Wow, what a presence manifested itself on this earth for all of us to experience and witness.’ I just wanted everybody to feel that.”
Throughout the process, the Jackson estate would check on his progress, says Antunes, holding listening sessions with Jackson family members. He recalls Jackie Jackson having a strong reaction to that alternate take of “ABC.” “He literally hit me on the back of the shoulder and said ‘Kevin, I remember when we recorded that!’ ” says Antunes with a laugh. “ ‘I remember! We’d put my brother in the studio and nobody would tell him what to sing. We just put him in there and let him go and it would just come out, all this magic.’ ”
Acrobat-dancer Terrance Harrison, who plays Jackson’s famous chimpanzee Bubbles in “Immortal,” says many family members and Jackson associates have been to see the show and given their stamp of approval in the form of their reactions. “When they came to see it the first time, Tito and Jackie came back[stage] and they were very emotional,” he says of Jackson’s brothers. “Travis Payne the choreographer was moved to tears.”
The participants themselves are often similarly touched. Antunes and Harrison admit to welling up during the rendering of “I’ll Be There,” which includes a tender piano passage played by Phillinganes, who says this “intimate moment” — a real interlude of quiet reflection in a colorfully chaotic show — often strikes a chord with him as well.
That sense of the poignant and the jubilant is what “Immortal” hopes to achieve every night. “We end with ‘Black or White’ and ‘Man in the Mirror.’ Everything is in the music,” says Harrison of the show’s underlying message of unity and positive change. “We’re just trying to get everyone up and celebrating. ‘Let’s love,’ that was one of Michael’s biggest dreams.”
“You’ll get a sense of resolve in celebrating his music,” says Phillinganes. “Because he left us so unexpectedly this is the closest way to have a sense of closure.”