Today’s doublespeak world can be perplexing. Quentin Tarantino rewrites the tragedy of the Manson murders into a cheerful award-winning finale, our president tells tall and twisted tales daily, and social media spins everything into multiple layers of distracting dogma and “fake news” (a term ironically used by those who lie the most). The truth often varies widely from storyteller to storyteller, and where a pop culture icon like Michael Jackson is concerned, it’s hard to know what to think or feel. Jackson’s mythic life, death and the molestation allegations against him fit right into the confusion and chaos of our times.
In this topsy-turvy, upside-down world it is worthy to consider the question: What if there was another angle to Jackson’s raison d’etre? What if the already kooky plot of Jackson’s life wasn’t quite as straightforward as it might seem? Enter the wryly brilliant mind of Julien Nitzberg and his bizarre yet fantastical new musical For the Love of a Glove. Nitzberg takes the timeline of Jackson’s life, based in well-documented music history, and expands the story into surreal absurdity even while consciously weaving in sociological, political and religious commentary. And it’s all presented and narrated from the perspective of Jackson’s blinged-out glove.
Without giving away too much of the over-the-top and extremely farcical plot, the glove in question is actually a thinking, speaking, musically gifted alien rescued by Jackson and his brothers after a spaceship crashes to Earth in Gary, Indiana. Set to a satiric, hilarious musical score featuring Nitzberg’s original lyrics, For the Love of a Glove is an unflinching yet thoughtful parody.
The Bronx-raised son of a Holocaust survivor and writer/director of boundary pushing theater and documentaries, Nitzberg tackles everything from masturbation and homosexuality to religion and racism in Glove. No topic is off limits, and everything is presented with an upbeat pizazz. Its meaty material is tied up in a pretty bow with an incredible singing and dancing cast of 12 gifted actors led by Jerry Minor (Saturday Night Live, HBO’s Mr. Show) as THRHIL-LHA (aka The Glove) and Eric B. Anthony (Broadway cast of The Lion King, Hairspray and Mary Poppins) as Michael. Choreography was created by two fellows who know the subject well. Cris Judd worked with Jackson for many years on The Dangerous Tour and HIStory Tour, while Bryan Anthony danced as an 11-year-old with the King of Pop, Alfonso Ribeiro and the other Jackson brothers in his infamous 1984 Pepsi commercial. Both bring the signature moves one might expect from a Jackson-themed project.
But the stars here are the 20 incredible life-sized puppets — created by puppet designer Robin Walsh who has worked for Jim Henson, Disney and Ray Harryhausen. The Japanese bunraku–style creatures (representing everyone from Emmanuel Lewis and Corey Feldman to Bubbles the Chimp) are ambitious works of art, integrated with live, visible actors that recall the Broadway musical Avenue Q. The top-level production team of composers, choreographers and designers are also joined by costumer Ann Closs-Farley, known for her work on Broadway designing The Pee-Wee Herman Show and Disney’s Toy Story, The Musical.
Part Peter Pan, part scathing social commentary, part music biography and a fully comedic audience experience, this is no children’s puppet show; a minimum age of 18 is required for entry. Far from politically correct, in one scene a marionette incarnation of Donny Osmond skewers the Mormon religion with a bubblegum song exposing the church’s intrinsic racist doctrine.
“The two villains in the show are Pat Boone and Donny Osmond,” Nitzberg explains during a rehearsal run of the show. “The Mormons teach that all black people are cursed. Their teaching — until 1979 — was that if you were black you couldn’t even go into a Mormon temple.”
So it is with no intended irony that Osmond and his four brothers “culturally appropriate” the Jackson 5’s funky style into their lily white brand of pop, stealing their dance moves, borrowing their wardrobe styles and watering down their Motown rhythms for a squeaky clean caucasian Teen Beat audience.
“They couldn’t put Michael on the covers of the teen magazines, they had to put Donny,” Nitzberg reveals. “They couldn’t have ‘Win a date with Michael’ because they wouldn’t sell copies.” As for Jackson’s infamous kiddy sleepovers, here they’re presented as innocent, like something straight out of a ’50s science fiction flick. With this kind of alternate storytelling, even the outlandish is made possible and plausible.
Opening at the newly relocated theater space of the Center for Inquiry West — a nexus long dedicated to critical thinking, intellectual exploration and avant-garde performances — the premium seats for this show are front-of-stage in comfortable bean-bag chairs. What better way to enter Jackson’s Neverland world than on 1970s teen-fad furniture?
Nitzberg says his goal is to eventually take For the Love of a Glove to Broadway, London’s West End and hopefully on a nationwide tour. With a production as provocative and innovative as this, it is likely to find mainstream success and to attract a cult following to boot. Suspend your disbelief, check your political correctness at the door and go see this off-the-wall show with an open mind while preparing yourself for a comical, culturally warped adventure.
For the Love of a Glove at Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan Theater, Center for Inquiry West, 2535 W. Temple St., Westlake; Sat., Jan. 25-Sun., Mar. 8; $50-$110. fortheloveofaglove.com.