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Review: Cirque's Michael Jackson show will surprise you

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Published:   |   Updated: May 21, 2014 at 01:18 AM

TAMPA — It might catch you off guard.

The moment when a giant mural of Michael Jackson explodes in a blaze of white light to reveal several even-more-gigantic images of Jackson in his iconic fedora, floating above the gilded gates of Neverland during the opening of “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour” at the Forum is surprisingly emotional.

The man who loomed so large over pop music for essentially his entire life, and even since his death in 2009, was celebrated in a thrilling and sometimes chilling production that opened in Tampa on Tuesday.

The Cirque Du Soleil-produced show, which returns to the Forum tonight, takes several dozen of Jackson's hits and turns each into a separate vignette featuring Cirque Du Soleil's world famous aerial acrobatics and choreography on a multi-level set that's constantly morphing throughout the night.

The show opens with the emotional “Have You Seen My Childhood,” which features one of the more haunting moments of the show, moving pieces of set that suddenly fall together to create a young Jackson, peering out a bedroom window, bathed in moonlight.

The energy quickly picks up from there. Some of the more memorable spots: an aerial routine with twinkling dancers floating through the galaxy during “Human Nature,'' dancers attached to huge robotic arms to form a literal dancing machine on “Dancing Machine” and nine Jackson doppelgängers doing Jackson's gravity-defying lean move on a beautifully noir set during “Smooth Criminal.”

The thread that ties the different numbers together is “the mime,” a sparkling, silver-suited character of ambiguous ethnicity who pops, locks and moonwalks through most of the songs. By the end, it's obvious he's the spirit, soul or ghost of the departed Jackson — take your pick.

The production definitely feels more Jackson than Cirque, with dancing and music taking precedence more than the typical Cirque Du Soleil show. The music is part live instrumentation, with horns, guitarists, dual drum sets, lots of backup singers and an electric cellist combining well with Jackson's recorded vocal tracks.

That doesn't mean that the more circus-like performers don't have their big moments. The contortionist who emerges from a giant book of scary tales, standing on her hands and bending her body in half backwards, even as she continues turning the pages, was perhaps the most impressive.

You'll also want to keep an eye out for a dancer performing as a chimpanzee — presumably a nod to Jackson's pet chimp, “Bubbles” (that amazing performance is more ape-like than anything at the zoo), as well as a sky-high pole dance at the end of "Smooth Criminal" that is a breathtaking display of female upper body strength.

There were a few odd choices, such as the dancing mummies on “Thriller,” a song so thoroughly associated with zombies, which also happen to be pop culture's favorite undead entertainment at the moment. Not that the "Thriller" segment wasn't good aside from that distraction, a high-energy dancer with one leg, who performed on a pair of bone crutches, got the biggest cheer of the night. 

The audience was about as diverse as it could get, running the gamut from retirement-aged folks to children who were barely out diapers when Jackson passed. Lots of them showed up in black fedoras and quite a few wore a single, sequined glove.  

It's hard to say how interested those young children were in Jackson's music, or how familiar they were with the iconography, but obviously their parents were very interested in sharing it with them. In that way, the King of Pop remains relevant. 

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