Smooth Criminals: The Songs of Michael Jackson
Brisbane Powerhouse & Christopher Wayne
Brisbane Powerhouse Theatre
December 4 2016
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
It’s the music of Michael Jackson but not as we know it.
The odd couple of the entertainment industry, Joel Turner (world champion beat boxer and platinum selling hip hop artist) and Luke Kennedy (The Voice & The Ten Tenors), make a perfect pair on stage in a celebration of the music and the memory of the King of Pop. Who would have thought this unlikely combination would bring any sort of success? Producer, Chris Wayne, that’s who, and together with Turner and Kennedy, his gamble paid off with a single sold-out show at Brisbane Powerhouse during Wonderland, and subsequent talks to take this universally appealing show on the road.
The magic of Smooth Criminals – n.b. there’s no nakedness or actual magic tricks – is a unique take on Michael Jackson’s discography, taking us on a journey through his unenviable life, from boy to man to immortal. It’s not a succession of greatest hits but rather, a poignant and personal account, seen mainly through Kennedy’s eyes, as he shares his encounters with the man’s music, reimagined and thrillingly remixed in collaboration with Turner and talented musos, Michael Manikus and Scotty French.
Smooth Criminals offers to a new generation a truly original take on MJ’s classic pop sound, but it caters to the die-hard fans first.
Kennedy, front and centre, demands our full attention. He’s as relaxed as we’ve ever seen him, gracious and respectful to the living memory of Michael Jackson, and confident, cute and actually flirtatious, inviting one guest to join him on the edge of the stage as he serenades her. This is a perfectly orchestrated crowd pleasing moment – we might think it’s a gimmick (she’s surely a plant!) – but Kennedy retains an ease that’s impossible to fake. We believe. He has us in the palm of his hand. AND he has this gorgeous Heath Ledger thing going on, as if he’s ready to bound through the tiered seating, singing……
You’re singing it now, aren’t you?
Kennedy emits the same sort of abandon, irresistible. Despite his protestations, he retains a crooner core, but Kennedy boasts a much broader vocal range and emotional spectrum than most, and he has the technical precision to sing just about anything. If you were privy to his Gethsemane several years ago (or anything since, really, let’s face it, even his National Anthem is nothing less than spectacular), you can imagine the power and control rendered behind even the simplest pop song. Yet, he remains humble and grateful.
Ben is a bittersweet treat, and Kennedy brings to it a sense of such simplicity and purity that we might imagine it’s the first time we’ve ever heard it, and for the very youngest audience members, it might be so. How lucky are they?! The Girl is Mine bounces beautifully between the artists, demonstrating an easy camaraderie and a great sense of cheeky comedy.
Smooth Criminal and Dirty Diana delve a little deeper and darker, although not once is there anything that goes into shadowy controversy, nor does there need to be. The crowd is on side from the outset (Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, Remember the Time) and we need no reminders of anything other than the genius and the music of the man. The genius of these new arrangements is in Turner’s work, providing depth and soul beneath Kennedy’s vocal line, and on the odd occasion, the perfect harmony as well. The guy can sing.
The collective energy is palpable during an earth medley, linking Heal the World, We Are the World and Man in the Mirror. (When was the last time you heard these numbers straight up, unparodied, with feeling?). It’s almost an anti-climax to hear the sensitive Gone Too Soon. A bigger, bolder finish would leave this show at Man in the Mirror, and make an encore of Billie Jean, bringing Turner out front too, with both amazing artists wearing one white glove. It seems remiss to keep Turner behind his mixing table, sans iconic symbol. Perhaps that’s as he wished. Let’s hope he wishes for more of the spotlight next time.
With Kennedy’s talent and a natural flair for performance, and Turner’s uncanny vocal and technical ability making each number an exciting and unique immersive musical experience for all ages, these two are not as unlikely a pair as they first appear to be.
Smooth Criminals is a sure hit, a thrilling tribute to Michael Jackson – the man and his music – and if you missed it in 2016 I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before you’ll see it at a venue near you.