Things were getting a bit heavy round here; unfunny comedians, legendary comedians suffering the hecklers from hell and vowing never to come back to Liverpool; it was all getting a bit depressing on the live front. So, I moseyed along to the Empire to take a chance on Thriller Live, expecting an evening of good-natured pop fun, but not sure on what side of stage school silliness it was going to fall. The serviceable but noticably low-budget set meant the focus was always going to be on the song and dance, and a show like this needed little embellishment, to be fair. Last time this came around to the Empire, Michael Jackson was still alive, but obviously now it accommodates more of a tribute element. A whirlwind ride through the career and songs of the King of Pop, despite a few cheesy homilies in between songs, the cast let the music do the talking. It was theatre for the X Factor generation – fast, slick, and easy to imagine Simon Cowell telling each performer they had made the song their own, purely by virtue of just staying in tune.
There was only one Michael Jackson, and it’s testament to that cliche that it took five lead vocalists in this show to attempt to take his place. Ian Pitter and Dwayne Wint provided the smooth soul, Nathan James the rock power, Reece McConnell in for the Motown years, and surprisingly, Pop Idol distant memory Hayley Evetts came with the attitude. Her Jackson-style affectations sounded the part and really suited her voice. In this respect, although there was plenty of “hee-hee”s and “shamone”s from everyone, it helped the show immensely that the vocalists weren’t under pressure to sound exactly like Jackson and brought their own style to their numbers.
Although the first half, which took in the Jackson 5 in their full flared and afro-ed 70s glory and the disco years right up to Can You Feel It, was fun, it was the second half that really made the show work. Allowing itself to move on out of sequence by disputing whether Thriller or Bad was the better album – thus allowing a build up to the show’s titular hit even though it was released first – lead dancer Sean Christopher took on Jackson’s most iconic dance routines. And by the time the cast uber-boogied their way to Smooth Criminal, the audience was spellbound. With that familiar fedora tipped over his eyes, it gave an air of mystery that blurred fantasy and reality. That famous Smooth Criminal lean was performed in full, and by that time, it was genuinely engrossing.
The pace didn’t let up. There was no chance to get bored, or even for the mind to wander – practically every note of almost every song would be tattooed in the memory of even someone with a casual interest. Part nostalgia trip, part awe-inspiring choreography masterclass, it would have been hard for anyone who has grown up with Jackson not to find something to enjoy in the mix, which made for a great family show. Perhaps rightly remaining controversy-free, it called itself a celebration of his music, kept the audience of children and adults alike thoroughly entertained and almost made it look easy doing so.
Thriller Live runs at the Liverpool Empire until Saturday (April 16).