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Cirque’s Michael Jackson tribute begins ticketed previews

So you made your first $281 million. Now what do you do for an encore?

But that was always the challenge for the creators of “Michael Jackson One,” the next phase of Cirque du Soleil’s partnership with the late superstar’s estate.

The new show carries over much of the creative team behind Cirque’s hit arena tour “Michael Jackson The Immortal,” this time for a salute to the King of Pop more in line with the company’s other Las Vegas spectacles.

“It really is part two,” director Jamie King says of the Mandalay Bay show that began ticketed previews Thursday, building to an official opening night June 29. “Being able to use Michael’s catalog in a different way was very exciting — and very challenging.”

While “The Immortal” $281.6 million gross to date (counting presales in Japan) may or may not have surprised its creators, they’ve known for three years, from the first announcement of Cirque’s partnership with the Jackson estate, that a Las Vegas edition would follow.

“The Immortal” set out to create an arena-concert atmosphere with a live band. But “One” remixes Jackson’s actual recordings in the manner of Cirque’s Beatles-themed “Love,” and makes full use of fixed technology and permanent staging, including holographic-type effects.

“This is really a fairy tale. It’s the story of four heroes who go on a journey,” King says. “It is hard to tell a story in a rock show setting. … Whereas in a theater here at Mandalay Bay, it’s more intimate. So now we can really immerse the audience with the performers. We can really tell a story and deliver in that way creatively.”

The larger plan may have been mapped out from the beginning, but many of the details had to wait for ticket-buyer reaction to “The Immortal.”

Cirque took its time before announcing whether the two shows would carry the same title, how much material would overlap and whether “Immortal” director Jamie King — known for staging arena tours for pop stars such as Madonna — would be entrusted with the more theatrical follow-up.

Success provided answers. “The Immortal” is still hard-charging through Asia, so if for no other reason, a new name was needed to distinguish the two different products, Cirque President Daniel Lamarre noted in February.

As for King? At one point, Lamarre said the director’s involvement would end with the arena tour. But as “The Immortal” kept clicking turnstiles around the globe, Lamarre told reporters in February, “We wanted the content of each show to be very different, but there was one guy we wanted to keep … because Jamie knows so well the universe of Michael Jackson.”

For King, who began his career as a background dancer on Jackson’s 1992 “Dangerous” tour, it threw down the sequined gauntlet to top himself.

“Once you’ve really gotten into what a song means for you, I had to believe that this acrobatic act or this dance style really made sense to that song,” he says.

“So now to kind of erase that? And create a new story for what ‘Thriller’ is, or what ‘Beat It’ is, it was … challenging at first,” the youthful, upbeat director says with a smile.

But Cirque paired King’s outside perspective with an insider, recruiting co-creator Welby Altidor from within its own ranks.

“It’s about the common space that exists between the world of Michael and the world of Cirque,” says Altidor, who previously helped the Montreal-based company with casting and strategic partnerships; this is his first time working as a “Director of Creation.”

Altidor’s experience with acrobats allowed him to tackle what he considers the new show’s central question: “What would happen, how would Michael move if he was an acrobat?”

Like most Cirque shows, “The Immortal” drew a fairly clear line between choreography as a framing element for acrobatics. This time, the goal was “to try to mix those two elements,” Altidor says.

“The way we use elements of urban dance, elements of acrobatics, are absolutely new and unique,” he adds. In “Smooth Criminal,” dancers do a gravity-defying forward lean in unison, before floor gymnasts spring into action on discretely concealed trampoline apparatus.

“Our goal is to create almost a 90-minute video clip journey,” Altidor says. The 1,800-seat theater — remodeled after past productions such as “The Lion King” and “Mama Mia!” — creates an atmosphere “that’s immersive, to where you really feel the performers. You feel them up close.”

“One” puts its “four misfits” (as the show’s ad copy describes them) on a quest with Jackson as their spirit guide, empowering them with his “agility, courage, playfulness and love” along the way.

“When we start to explore the genius of Michael, those are the four attributes we kept coming back to,” Altidor explains. “He was a man of love. He tried all the time to heal the world, to change the world, to inspire people to do that.”

And even as “someone who was quite shy in his private life,” Jackson as a stage presence displayed “this incredible showmanship and this courage in terms of speaking of things that sometimes felt uncomfortable.” The video for “They Don’t Care About Us,” Altidor says, is “still current to this day.”

Those who worked with Jackson “keep on saying how playful he was. And of course, “Michael had this incredible grace and agility.”

But, he adds, “any good story has an antagonist, obstacles you need to overcome.” In life, Jackson was constantly dogged by the tabloid press. So in “2 Bad” the heroes are menaced by caped creatures with cameras growing out of their heads.

The “One” stage is backed by a wall-to-wall video screen, which creates dimensional effects and the ability for the late superstar himself to show up now and then.

Just how often will be determined in the tinkering phase before June 29, as one hard lesson of “Viva Elvis” — Cirque’s only Las Vegas strike-out to date — was that when Elvis Presley appeared on video, people quit paying attention to the live acrobats on the stage.

“We wanted to create a situation where people long for his presence and long for the performer that he was,” Altidor says of effects such as Jackson appearing as an apparition amid wispy clouds, behind a rope-entwined aerialist, during “Stranger in Moscow.”

The goal is to be “feeling his presence in different ways, without necessarily revealing so much, so early, so specifically — from say, a video — that his presence overpowers everything else.”

Otherwise, Altidor says, Jackson’s presence was welcome.

At times, the creators felt “almost this divine intervention. Almost like Michael was conspiring with us to make it all work perfectly. It made the journey really inspiring.”

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@
reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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