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Baldwin Wallace Grad Tours with ‘MJ,’ Inspired by Michael Jackson’s Music

The musical “MJ” is set to make its Cleveland debut at Playhouse Square from July 16 through August 11. This production offers an intimate glimpse into the creative mind of Michael Jackson at a pivotal moment in his career, as he prepares to launch his Dangerous World Tour in 1992.

In this narrative, crafted by book writer Lynn Nottage, Jackson, portrayed by Roman Banks, is seen in a Los Angeles rehearsal studio talking to a reporter about his challenging childhood and the career milestones that led up to the tour. These reflections come to life on stage as flashbacks, featuring three different actors representing Michael at various stages of his life—little Michael, teen Michael, and pop star MJ.

The musical has been a hit on Broadway, winning four Tony Awards, including best actor, choreography, lighting design, and sound design. The direction and choreography are overseen by Christopher Wheeldon, bringing a dynamic and engaging energy to the production.

Among the 28-member cast for the national tour is Jahir Hipps, a 2021 Baldwin Wallace University musical theater graduate. Hipps, originally from Brooklyn, is excited to be returning to the Cleveland area, where he honed his craft. Since the tour began last August in Chicago, Hipps has been serving as a “swing,” covering eight roles and stepping in on stage at least once a week. He recently renewed his contract, committing to the tour for another full year.

This isn’t Hipps’ first tour experience. After graduating, he joined the “Rent” 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour, which took him across the United States and Japan. Reflecting on that journey, Hipps said, “It was a brand new experience. I learned a lot about myself and my craft. It’s always been exciting, even now, to be paid to see parts of the U.S. I would never have visited otherwise.”

On the “MJ” tour, Hipps has particularly enjoyed stops in New Orleans for its great food and vibe and Greenville, S.C., for its charming small-city appeal.

Hipps’ admiration for Michael Jackson goes back to his childhood. He was inspired by Jackson’s influence as a young Black artist in society. “Michael Jackson has always spoken to me in a way that made me believe anyone can do anything,” Hipps shared. A personal connection to the Broadway show also runs deep for Hipps, as his friend Tavon Olds-Sample from Baldwin Wallace left school to debut as teen Michael in “MJ.”

Watching his friend perform was a pivotal moment for Hipps. “It was incredible to see him perform. When I saw the show in New York, it was stunning and so inspiring,” he said. This inspiration eventually led Hipps to audition for “MJ” in New York, a month-long process where he initially auditioned as a cover for MJ and Michael. “Christopher Wheeldon was a great person and collaborator during the auditions,” Hipps recalled.

In his current role, Hipps covers eight different characters, including Jackson brothers Tito, Jackie, and Jermaine, as well as other notable figures like Quincy Jones, Nick the stage manager, Berry Gordy, Alejandro the photographer, and Dave, the business manager.

To prepare for these multiple roles, Hipps studied each one meticulously, maintaining a notebook for every character. Alongside seven other swings in the production, he spent considerable time observing, rehearsing, and perfecting choreography. Upon moving to Chicago for technical rehearsals and the tour’s commencement, the swings intensified their practice sessions.

“While the show was ongoing, we would rehearse in a downstairs space, performing the show as it was happening above us. It was all about being diligent and going over what we knew,” Hipps explained.

The “MJ” musical features 37 Jackson songs, including mega-hits like “Thriller,” “Man in the Mirror,” and “Billie Jean,” accompanied by stunning choreography. Though most hardcore dancing is done by the show’s dancers, Hipps has his moments of executing iconic Jackson moves, particularly when he covers the Jackson brothers in numbers like “Can You Feel It” and the Victory Tour dances from 1984.

“The choreography is lightning, dynamite, and taxing, but brilliantly crafted,” Hipps said, adding that a “Soul Train” segment featuring the brothers in 1970s style jumpsuits is another highlight. The show’s costumes are conceived by Akron native and Tony Award-winner Paul Tazewell.

Audience response to “MJ” has been overwhelmingly positive, with many getting up to dance and sing along during performances. “People are used to being in a concert setting when they hear those songs. They’re super excited and vocal, which is very entertaining for us,” Hipps noted.

Source: Akron Beacon Journal