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Back to ONE

By Elizabeth Gracen:

Michael Jackson’s Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil show, One, at the Mandalay Bay opened in 2013. On a cross-country summer road trip with my parents and young kid in 2014, we decided to stop in Vegas, play in the hotel’s Lazy River for the day, and catch the show that night. The Mandalay Bay hotel and family friendly environment was overwhelming and, if memory recalls, I vowed never to return—but my kid had fun . . . until the Cirque show that night.

I can’t count how many times I danced with my child in our living room to Jackson’s music up until that moment. We spent many an evening as Dancing Machines—the volume cranked as we wildly gesticulated and sang along to his greatest hits, so I didn’t think twice about the appropriateness of the show for a six-year-old. I purchased seats in the back row of the auditorium, far from the show’s impact, just in case. We didn’t care. The back row meant we could stand up and dance without anyone looking. When the familiar guitar wale of “Beat It” started the show, we were up on our feet— but the initial thrill quickly shifted as strange characters with computers strapped to their chests (shadow paparazzi?) stalked the aisles. The over-the-top projections and loud music proved too intense, so we spent quite a bit of time in the lobby calming down before going back and forth to our seats several times—especially when the zombies from “Thriller” took the stage and staggered toward the crowd. It was a crazy night, but I remember loving the spectacle.

It’s now 2022, and after a three-day volleyball tournament in the Mandalay (never say never), we decided that after a long weekend of non-stop sports, we would reward ourselves with a return to the scene of the crime—Smooth Criminal-style.

It’s been eight years since we saw the show, and it goes without saying that a lot has transpired during that time. My kid is now sixteen, six feet tall, digs scary movies, and still loves to dance, but we are both well aware of the tarnished legacy of Michael Jackson. We wrestled with the conundrum and somehow rationalized, right or wrong, that his music has a life of its own and can be separated from the artist’s alleged misdeeds. It’s tricky, and maybe even impossible, to uproot memories of something that made you feel as good as dancing to “Billie Jean.” Hard to simply throw those joyful memories in the trash heap of yet another disappointment in the human race. In a world of so much incredibly bad news, sometimes you just want to dance and revive the joy you once felt.

By the time the shocking and controversial 2019 HBO documentary Leaving Neverland broadcast the stories of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two alleged victims of Michael Jackson, the public was already familiar with the claims of sexual abuse of the young men in Jackson’s orbit. Sordid details emerged as early as 1993, and the subsequent timeline surrounding his strange world unfolded in the public eye over the next decade. But this film in particular, in its four-hour, detailed exploration of Jackson’s history of alleged abuse of young boys, created a collective cringe in our psyches, tugging at memory’s roots and all those good feelings we associated with the sullied pop icon. When Jackson died in 2009 of cardiac arrest due to an overdose of various medications, his weird life and untimely death served yet another hit to what we thought we knew, what we were able to accept, and how we were supposed to process the degradation and demise of a man who had shaped our world through music.

This time back at the Mandalay, we took our much-better seats just as the video projections, shadow paparazzi, and distorted music finally crescendoed into the familiar “Beat It” that starts the show. I have to admit to an initial adrenaline surge and a hint of that old joy, but except for “Dirty Diana,” with her fabulous ponytail and pole dancing, we couldn’t help feeling let down by the usually captivating Cirque performers. Yes, involuntary shoulder shakes and chair dancing ensued when “Billie Jean,” “Bad,” and “Smooth Criminal” blasted through the speakers, but all-in-all, the show felt dated, lackluster, joyless, and, dare I say . . . tarnished.

It wasn’t until the finale and mind-bending hologram of Michael onstage dancing with the live performers that I felt the true impact of my disappointment. I remembered the hologram from the first time I saw the show and how moved I had been when the adult Michael morphed into Michael the child. It confirmed then, and still confirms now, the truth: that we were all once innocent children, that life happens, that we make choices that change us into who we are now. I’m thinking of that final hologram and that last ironic song, “Man in the Mirror,” written in 1988. What was Jackson thinking about when he last performed it at the United We Stand concert on October 21, 2001, in Washington, D.C., as a tribute to the victims of the September 11 attacks? Did he still look in the mirror and challenge himself to change his ways? No matter the powerful lyrics and melody, was it hard for him to sing? Will I ever again feel the challenge the song invites me to consider? How does it make you feel?

I’m sure the show will run as long as Jackson’s estate and Cirque du Soleil can squeeze out a buck, but in my opinion, they should retire One. We have the music if we want to dance, but I for one don’t ever need to see Michael Jackson moonwalk again. I’ve seen enough.


Elizabeth Gracen is the owner of Flapper Press & Flapper Films.

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