Cirque celebrates MJ with superb flair

Michael Jackson died five years ago this June. His passing removed all the distractions surrounding his work – his personal habits, odd relationships and changes in appearance – and left a song catalog that holds four decades of prime material.

Those songs form the core of “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour,” which ran at Time Warner Cable Arena Tuesday and Wednesday. Like all Cirque du Soleil shows, it dazzles and confounds the eyes for more than two hours. But the organs that come away most delighted are the ears.

They get the unadulterated joy of preteen Michael singing “I’ll Be There” to the gentle solo piano of Charlie Wilson, the playful humor of young adult MJ bouncing through “Wanna Be Starting Something,” the primal rage of the mature Jackson on “They Don’t Care About Us”. (That number re-creates a piece designed for the “This Is It” tour, with dancers stomping in unison as robots. Their LED breastplates reveal dollar signs, then question marks, then peace symbols and finally red, glowing hearts.)

Sometimes the show approaches a straight-up rock concert, especially near the end. (Except for Jackson’s lead vocals, a tight live band supplies the music.) Sometimes aerialists take flight, acrobats dangle from silks or poles, gymnasts contort or hurl themselves across the stage. Often a mime (agile, emotive Mansour Abdessadok) responds to Jackson’s vocals or seems to act out the words. And always, whether we hear Jackson or see him on huge screens behind the stage, his charisma shines through.

A pairing of Cirque and Jackson seems natural for three reasons. First, they share a sense of playfulness: Pole dancer Anna Melnikova writhes high in the air, both menaced and worshipped by six guys below in suits, during the half-serious “Dangerous.”

Second, his songs often express a sense of wonder, an open-eyed amazement at the world, and that’s a Cirque hallmark. Aerialists in sparkling garb float through the air during “Human Nature,” like beings reduced to ethereal spirits.

Third, Cirque shows have a special inclusiveness: People of different builds, ages, races and nations take part. In this case, a one-legged dancer rocks the house on his arm braces. Jackson’s songs also emphasize our universality, especially universal needs for respect, trust and affection (celebrated here in the climactic, pull-out-the-stops “Black or White”).

We usually associate Cirque with pure pleasure, but Jackson’s social consciousness gets a workout in the second half, whether in the ominous “Earth Song” (with the planet burning) or “Scream.” I can’t give a better description of the latter than the press notes: “Acrobats execute a perfectly synchronized tumbling act, flinging themselves in the air and bellyflopping onto the stage, as Ninja-style aerial dancers suspended above interact with Japanimation-inspired sequences projected on the screens. The scene evokes the destruction of the world.”

That may sound a bit zany, but it’s compelling when you see and hear it. And there’s nothing silly about the children with near-fatal malnutrition or the murdered civil rights leaders projected on the screen during “They Don’t Care About Us.” That class-conscious number couldn’t be more timely.

Those screens serve more of a purpose here than in most arena shows, even most Cirque shows. They provide a visual counterpoint or complement to what we see onstage, showing related images, special visual effects or snatches of old Jackson videos.

At one point, dancers in suits that turn them into neon-lit silhouettes move into a synchronized number. They’re stepping out in fascinating style when the glittering Jackson appears on the big screen, whirling and moonwalking. Even they stop dancing for a moment and seem to watch. The choreographer knew that, when Jackson’s at his most compelling, our eyes go straight to him.