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Fully masked ‘Michael Jackson One’ soars in Strip relaunch

Updated August 21, 2021 - 6:32 pm

What does a Cirque du Soleil trampoline artist sidelined for 17 months do when called back to work?

He jumps right in.

“Training, obviously, has been my main goal,” Cirque “Michael Jackson One” artist Greg Pennes says through a black face cover during a break in rehearsals. “It’s definitely new for us, dealing with health and safety issues, but once you jump in …”

And you see the smile, even behind the black.

“MJ One,” off for 17 months, was back Thursday at Mandalay Bay. Pennes, born in Paris and an Olympic trampoline qualifier in the 2008 and 2012 games, has been with the show for about six years.

“It’s been amazingly great,” Pennes says of bouncing back to action. “The body remembers. It’s pretty incredible.”

The show that premiered later was a dance through Jackson’s classics dating to his days with the Jackson 5, with one clear exception. The entire cast wore black medical masks throughout the show. Only vocalists performed without the covers.

Cirque adjusted its in-house policy for performers when the state called for masks to be required for everyone indoors, regardless of vaccination status. Cirque had previously allowed artists to perform without masks if they had been vaccinated.

The masking of every acrobat and dancer in the troupe made Thursday’s relaunch even more impressive. The cast raced through such Jackson hits as “Beat It,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Billie Jean” and “Thriller” — with zombie characters hanging above the crowd in aerial harnesses. The famous lean in ‘Smooth Criminal” was also flawless.

The performers never showed ill effects from wearing covers over their faces.

During the run-up to the show, in early friends-and-family rehearsals, ushers have actually offered earplugs to those entering the performance. Thus, “MJ One” is the rare (and to our knowledge, only) Strip production to have audience members’ faces and ears covered.

The show is the third Cirque show to return to the Strip, following “Mystere” at Treasure Island and “O” at Bellagio. The Beatles’ “Love” at the Mirage opens Thursday. “Ka” is still unannounced, though the company reps have indicated it will not open before November.

“We are operating in an environment that was created when we were down,” Cirque Senior Artistic Director Kati Renaud says. “You approach this creatively, and asking, ‘How different can we do this?’”

Makeup application for masked performers has been adjusted, of course. That process takes about an hour per performer, with the artists moving in and out of the space in shifts to maintain distance.

But the show has, by early accounts, enlivened its audiences. Yes, they are already Cirque-anointed, but the performers can feel real passion from the stage.

“The first time back, I got goosebumps,” Pennes says. “It was so much different than performing for empty seats. It was emotional, it was magical.”

Afterward, Cirque CEO Daniel Lamarre met the cast and congratulated the company on returning to form. He wore the cover of course, but there was no masking his joy. Up next is more “Love.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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