The man in the mirror

2011-01-14 09:36

What is the number one wish of every Michael Jackson fan? To see him in concert, of course.

The producer and stars of History – This Is It promise to make that wish come true at Joburg Theatre on Wednesday.

The show aims to recreate Jackson’s This Is It tour, which never happened due to his untimely death in 2009.

Kenny Wizz is billed as the world’s foremost Michael Jackson impersonator.

As he approaches me for our interview, the sight is ­uncanny and, frankly, unnerving.

Decked out in faux snakeskin pants, a black air-force jacket, and the King of Pop’s signature ­mirror shades and fedora, he causes quite a stir as he takes his seat in the coffee shop.

In fact, the band he will be playing with skips rehearsals for a few minutes to see him.

None of them has seen him all dressed up.

They are impressed.

Wizz has been impersonating Jackson for more than a quarter of a century.

It all started on the streets of Los Angeles, where he grew up.

A self-taught street dancer, all sorts of people started telling him how much he resembled the King of Pop and how he should start looking for work as an impersonator.

That was in 1984, when Thriller was released. Wizz was about 20-ish.

His age or what he looks like out of costume are no-go areas for ­discussion.

Which is to be expected. Like a ­magician, it is the creation of an illusion that provides his livelihood.

“The only reason I tried doing the ­impersonation was to tell people that I had tried it and didn’t like it. But obviously it worked.

“I’ve never been trained as a dancer. Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned by myself. When I ­started out, there was no YouTube or anything. I had to look at still photos. I would study the photo and decide how Michael had got to that point.”

Twenty-six years later, Wizz is still making a living out of his keen powers of observation and his incredible capacity for mimicry.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s got the moves and sings like the late Jackson too.

The obvious question to ask is whether he’s a huge fan of the man he impersonates for a living. Unsurprisingly, he is.

But he says it’s hard to find anyone who isn’t. He says most people who have grown up with ­Jackson’s music have a song of his that informs an experience in their lives.

They may not be his number one fan, but it would be hard to find anyone who doesn’t have a Michael Jackson moment.

“I cover all decades of his music. I like the Bad era because I like Smooth Criminal and Beat It. I like Thriller. But I can’t pick a favourite because once I have performed something on stage, it takes on its own meaning for me,” says Wizz.

Wizz, who starred in a show called Splash on the Las Vegas strip for 11 years, got the job as Michael Jackson in this recreation of what would have been his This Is It concert because, ­according to producer Johnny Van Grinsven, he’s got that indefinable thing, the X factor.

“I spent two years travelling the world looking for Michael Jackson. Before Jackson died, I was looking for an impersonator to take part in a Legends-type show, but after his death, I realised that what people wanted was to see the concert he never got to do,” says Van Grinsven.

After travelling from India to the Philippines and on to England, Van Grinsven found Wizz in Las Vegas. He was the second-last Michael Jackson he saw, and he was the best.

Since the death of the King of Pop, things have changed.

For one thing, there has been an explosion of impersonators on the scene.

Wizz says this was to be expected. The same thing happened after the death of the King of Rock ’n Roll, Elvis ­Presley, another favourite of Wizz’s.

There are three or four impersonators that he knows in his hometown of Las Vegas, and they all keep up with each other – though Wizz points out that they don’t exactly have a clubhouse, just a shared interest.

Before Jackson died, Wizz had to continually update and revise his show.

Now, there is no more innovation to come from the original source and people really just want Wizz to be Jackson – the legend who is no more.

Wizz travels with his own make-up artist and spends two hours before every show creating the illusion – very successfully – that he is indeed the King of Pop, or rather the closest any of us will ever get to the real man.

“There’s a lot of detail that goes into my ­performance. My job is for the audience to see the magic in front of them. They don’t need to know what I go through to create it,” says Wizz.

As for getting through a high-energy ­performance night after night, he’s philosophical about that, saying he exchanges energy with the audience. He says it’s a bit like doing something you love – you don’t really notice the time passing.

Though he does admit to running about 7km every second day to keep in shape.

And then there are the rehearsals, which take quite some time. After all, everything has to be just like the original – just as slick and polished. It also takes him a good couple of hours to come down off the high that comes with performing.

Wizz is generous about the contributions of everyone involved in the show, acknowledging that, like all productions, it is collaborative, which is our cue to seek out the band that will be backing Wizz.

The show’s musical director, Richard Baker, is in one of the rehearsal rooms in the cavernous backstage area of the Nelson Mandela Theatre.

He’s busy pulling together the United Nations of bands, the members of which have been flying in from all over the world all week.

Local lad Dale Scheepers (who plays the keyboard and sings all the Jermaine Jackson parts) has been drafted to join Nigerian percussionist Johnson Toyin, Scottish drummer David Gray, Kiwi guitaris t Tony Cowell, Englishwoman Mary Anne Radcliffe on guitar, Canadian keyboardist Giles Tingey and Baker, who is Australian.

On a more sober note, Baker’s just got off the phone with his family, who have told him that his house is almost underwater as the floods in his home ­country continue unabated. He says there’s little he could do if he was home, except evacuate with his family.

Instead, he’s in Joburg ­adding his musical mojo to the elixir that will hopefully bring Michael Jackson back to his fans.

Baker has worked with Van Grinsven for about four or five years.

Together they have created shows such as Hannah & ­Miley: The Best of Both Girls’ Shows, The Eagles Experience and the upcoming Simply The Best.

“The line-up is identical to ­Jackson’s This Is It concert. It’s a big task putting together a Michael ­Jackson concert. It’s got to be perfect before opening night,” says Baker, who is more excited than daunted by the task.

History – This Is It is new and will make its debut in Joburg before setting off on a two-year world tour that will take the ­company from Sydney to Las Vegas.

Van Grinsven says he chose to debut the show here because of the Joburg Theatre, which has great staff and facilities.

He’ll need all their help to pull it off. After all, the lighting rig is set to put out 350 000 watts – that’s about as much power as 15 cars put
out a day.

The dancers, meanwhile. are being put through their paces by local choreographer Claire van Niekerk and a pair of local costume designers is hard at work sewing on sequins.

South African audiences might feel a little ­unsure of this production after last year’s ­disappointing Thriller Live!, which failed to ­deliver what fans want – Michael Jackson live in concert.

However, History – This Is It promises to make up for it.

“It’s the concert you never saw,” says Wizz, who strikes a familiar pose before joining the band for a rendition of I’ll

Be There.

» History – This Is It will run at the Nelson Mandela ­Theatre at the Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein from January 19 to February 12. Book at Computicket 

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