Thriller Live – Review – Hull New Theatre
By Rachel Howard, May 2019
Thriller Live has been a West End fixture for ten years and has been on my list of “must-see” shows for some time. Now, I must admit, recent (and not so recent) controversies surrounding Michael Jackson have made me think twice about going, but when the touring show pulled into Hull New Theatre, I decided to set aside my feelings about the man, and let the music do the talking.
I wondered whether this year’s headlines would have affected ticket sales, but the opening night was not far off a sell out, and there were plenty of die-hard Jacko fans in attendance — many dressed as the man himself — so all looked promising. Having grown up listening to Michael Jackson, I was looking forward to a trip down memory lane — a full-on, energetic, high-quality production that would transport me back to the good old days of pop music and get me moonwalking down the aisles.
Within a few minutes of the show starting, I realised I wasn’t watching a musical in the traditional sense of the word. This wasn’t a story, no one played specific roles, it was more of a concert of musical performances, interspersed with sporadic chat from the cast and a particularly cheesy bit of audience participation. I’m not sure whether I’m disappointed by the lack of a story or not, but the music carries me through and I’m soon toe-tapping away to hits including ‘ABC’, ‘Blame It On The Boogie’ and ‘Remember The Time’. One issue that I struggle to get over, however, is the lack of any obvious order of the music. The cast do a good job of trying to lead us from era to era, but when the set list jumps from Human Nature (1982) to Dangerous (1991) to Off The Wall (1980), things feel a little confused.
“Touch of class”
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only problem I had with Thriller Live. Like many people, I watched the MJ documentary This Is It and saw first-hand what a perfectionist Jackson was, practising over and over in order to get a dance move right, a song perfectly pitched or a stage set right. With this in mind, I felt slightly uncomfortable watching dance routines that at times seemed laboured, out of sync and verging on, dare I say, amateur. I even felt that one of the dancers looked fed up, like she would rather be somewhere else.
This shouldn’t take away from the talent of the main vocalists, who carried Michael Jackson’s catalogue of works beautifully. Special mention should go to Trace Kennedy, Leticia Hector and Rory Taylor, who all took on some of Jackson’s biggest hits and made them their own. For those who wanted more of a “lookalike”, Britt Quentin brought the King of Pop back to the stage with his striking resemblance to the man himself. I felt all the singers did a great job, but the power in the vocals was at times lacking, and they occasionally became lost in the music from the production’s band.
Speaking of the band, they were terrific. Situated at the back of the stage, hidden for the most part, they performed all the music live and really brought a much-needed touch of class, power and authenticity to proceedings. One of the highlights of the whole show was when the guitarist Allan Salmon took centre stage for the iconic ‘Beat It’ guitar solo. The same goes for the guitar sections of ‘Dirty Diana’ — spine-tingling stuff.
“Expectations were too high”
On a less positive note, the set was not the most inventive or spectacular I have seen, and the choice of images projected onto the LED screens was confusing and disjointed. The costumes on the whole were as you would expect — sequinned gloves, sparkly socks, black loafers and hats — but my friend and I both raised an eyebrow at ‘Bad’ being performed in suits that were more akin to Saturday Night Fever…
The second act concluded with some of Jackson’s biggest hits: ‘Smooth Criminal’ — and yes, they did the infamous lean!; ‘Dirty Diana’; and ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, performed sassily by Leticia Hector. I felt my faith restore as the classic ‘Thriller’ routine began with some surprise visitors in the audience (say no more…), but yet again, I was left feeling like something was missing. The spark, energy and intensity I was hoping for just wasn’t quite there.
I don’t know if my expectations were too high, but as I departed the theatre, I was left feeling frustrated. This was a production that promised so much but delivered little more than an average performance. Whatever your thoughts on the man, many would agree his music is timeless, and this show even spurred me on to re-listen to the Bad album within minutes of getting home, so to some extent, it did its job. But I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought his catalogue of music deserved something more. Here’s hoping that little bit extra is delivered for future audiences.