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Live Active Cultures

Seth interviews Tara Young, artistic director of Cirque du Soleil's Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour

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It takes a lot more than a single spangled glove to pay proper tribute to the King of Pop. In fact, it requires an army of almost 200 people to reincarnate the magic of MJ. That’s according to Tara Young, artistic director of Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, which stops in Orlando at the Amway Center Feb. 28-29. I spoke with Young last week about this new collaboration between the Jackson estate and Cirque du Soleil, which she described as “the biggest show hitting all of the arenas across North America.”

With Cirque-produced Beatles and Elvis shows already established in Las Vegas, a Cirque-Jackson mashup seemed inevitable. Indeed, though development of the show began after his death, Jackson “was a huge fan of Cirque du Soleil and often spoke with Cirque about doing a project with them,” Young says. The two parties make a logical match because both represent the drive for excellence, she adds.

As artistic director of the tour, Young is responsible for preserving and polishing the vision of writer-director Jamie King, who is an Emmy-nominated choreographer for Madonna and Rihanna, among others. It’s a role Young has performed on Broadway for more than 20 years, but with 63 performers, 100 technicians and dozens of staff to coordinate, the scope of this show is extraordinary. During the show’s development, whether dealing with dancers, acrobats or musicians, Young says King’s “constant focus [was], ‘How do we celebrate and honor Michael Jackson?’”

Speaking of musicians, the show’s live band includes performers that actually played with Jackson, which Young says provides a foundation of authenticity. They play behind Jackson’s original vocal tracks in a way Young says “fully honors Michael’s music. … You not only hear him singing throughout the show, you hear him speaking.” While Young wouldn’t divulge the set list, you can count on hearing hits like “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Smooth Criminal” during the two-hour show, along with a few ballads communicating Jackson’s mantras of “peace, unity and equality.”

Thanks to MTV, Jackson’s work is as embedded in our collective visual memory as it is aurally ingrained. Acknowledging that, the tour’s creators realized the impossibility of improving upon the genius of John Landis’ video for “Thriller.” Rather than attempt radical reinvention, they decided to “honor Michael [and] start with the video” with the intention of “bringing it off the screen.” That goes double for the dancing (iconic moonwalk included, of course), which was choreographed by artists who worked with Michael like Travis Payne and Rich and Tone Talauega. At the same time, King and company aren’t striving for celebrity impersonation. “We don’t imitate Michael. You couldn’t do that; that would be a mistake,” Young says, explaining that though no single performer quote-unquote plays Jackson, audiences “really feel Michael’s presence on stage.”

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