Of course, I’m aware that Michael Jackson hasn’t been with us for a decade. But that didn’t stop my heart from racing when impersonator Michael Firestone answered the phone from his Las Vegas home with an informal, Jacksonian-pitched ‘How’s it going?”
“Shamone, ow and hee hee!” The King of Pop lives! If the 40-year-old Firestone can be that convincing on the phone in his natural voice, imagine how he is on the stage, with the lights, the moves, the band and 90 minutes’ worth of makeup helping to create the illusion that it’s Jackson up there doing the moonwalk to “Billie Jean.”
The throngs of Israeli Jackson fans will get to find out when Firestone brings his acclaimed extravaganza, “I Am King – The Michael Jackson Experience,” for 20 performances throughout the country beginning on January 29.
A sellout attraction for years at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Firestone said he tries to capture the diverse dimensions of the pop culture legend – his dazzle as well as his childlike persona.
“To do this character, I think you have to be a genuinely nice person, and impersonate someone that you can personally relate to,” said Firestone, who began imitating Jackson as a teen in Rome, New York. “If you don’t match, it’s not going to work… like a super nice guy probably wouldn’t do a great job doing Axl Rose. I’d like to think that I’m a giving and caring person and that’s how Michael was. He just came across as a super humble person from a distance and I like that kind of thing. I’m more attracted to niceness.”
Unless he keeps in Jackson character on late-night phone calls, Firestone, the father of three daughters, indeed seems to share a humble, man-child persona with the icon he impersonates. But it was the dynamic, show-stopping Jackson energy, as well as his catalogue of songs and videos that first attracted the young Firestone to his eventual career.
“I was just telling a young kid about this that I feel like today, artists are kind of pushed down peoples’ throats – they’re everywhere on YouTube and social media. As opposed to when I was growing up, and we were constantly waiting for Michael Jackson or Madonna or Prince to come out with something new, I feel like everything now is forgettable and disposable,” said Firestone.
Firestone began teaching himself to dance and sing like Jackson at the height of Jacksonmania in the mid-80s when “everyone my age tried to dance like him.”
He did it better than everyone else though, and when he looked around and saw the quality of professional Jackson impersonators, he knew that he had a fall back to his aspiring career in music.
“I realized after puberty that my voice wasn’t going to get super deep, and see those other impersonators inspired me in a ‘if they can do it, I can do it’ way. So through high school, I had this as my B plan – my A plan of course to write and perform my own music. But the B plan was not a bad plan, it’s been really wonderful.”
Firestone, an accomplished guitarist, also toyed with the idea of delving into the tribute realm of another royal performer – Prince – but the march didn’t work as seamlessly as for Jackson.
“Prince just wasn’t my character. The guitar was no problem, and I could have moved like him if I had stuck with it, but those clothes... they just weren’t for me,” said Firestone with a giggle. “I don’t know if my father would have let me in the house if I wore some of those clothes.”
“I stuck with Michael – he was kind of raceless and sexless onstage, but he still dressed and walked around like royalty,” he said. “It was more of a style I was comfortable with.”
FIRESTONE TOOK on Jackson as a career option in earnest when a recording contract resulted in a lawsuit that prevented him from recording music for five years.
“The moves and the singing were no problem for me, I had them down. When you’re young and you hit it really hard and you’ve got rhythm, I think you can pick up Michael Jackson pretty easily. But if you start at age 30 or something, it’s not going to work. Your body grows in a certain way, and I have people from his family tell me that I have the same posture as him, some of his mannerisms, and that my arms and legs move the same way.”
The only problem was that Firestone looked more like celebrity magician Criss Angel than he did Michael Jackson.
“The hardest part for me was the makeup and the transformation into Michael,” he said. “When I look at some of the old pictures of me in character, I can’t believe I went onstage like that. I’m surprised I didn’t get smashed in the head with a watermelon from the audience.”
That problem has been solved with considerable investment in professionally applied makeup before every performance that make the transformation complete.
The psychological transformation from mild-mannered Michael Firestone to the King of Pop takes place at the same time.
“When you’re sitting there looking at yourself in the mirror, each thing that you do – the wig, the makeup, the costume, helps you get into the mode,” said Firestone. “But to be honest, my secret weapon is a big joke in my cast. I listen to Coldplay the whole time I’m being made up. There’s something about their music that gets me in this really calm place, and it helps me even more get into character.”
That Michael Jackson character represents a dichotomy – the very public and flamboyant performer contrasting with his natural shyness, traits that typify Firestone as well.
“Michael was crazy onstage, but even there, between numbers, he’d go into a shell. Picking up on those things are kind of natural to me. I’m not shy, if it’s my party then I’m the center of attention. But I would never walk into a situation that I wasn’t invited and start mouthing off. I’m naturally a shy person,” he said.
Firestone tries to present that complexity of Jackson’s character by occasionally breaking character in performance and talking to the crowd as himself, both as an acknowledgment that he’s not Jackson and as a way to relate to skeptical audience members who may have been dragged to the show by a rabid Jackson fan.
“I always make it clear that the they aren’t my fans, they’re Michael fans. I do break character just enough to let them know I’m not in any way or form delusional enough to think that I’m taking his place,” said Firestone. “There are always people in the crowd who are not Michael Jackson fans and they’re thinking, ‘Who is this freak who did all this surgery?’ Because they don’t realize it’s makeup. How do I win over those people? So I involve them, and they realize that this guy isn’t taking himself so seriously. I just give them a little bit of Michael Firestone and then snap back into Michael Jackson.”
One person who appreciated Firestone’s ability to capture the essence of Michael Jackson was... Michael Jackson. A few years before his death, the King of Pop sat with Firestone for eight hours in Las Vegas discussing music and life, an afternoon that Firestone calls one of the peaks of his life.
“He was really awesome, and we talked about everything, it was great just hanging out with him. He wasn’t this mythological creature, this Bigfoot,” said Firestone, who later sent Jackson a video of his impersonation.
“He contacted me after that and gave me a couple corrections to certain moves, how I was doing something backwards,” he said. “He wasn’t mean about it at all. The first time I went onstage with the revised move, it went so much better and I remember thinking, ‘This guy’s a genius, how did he know that?’”
The road-tested, seamless, “I Am King – The Michael Jackson Experience” show will likely dazzle local audiences, even those who saw Jackson himself perform at Park Hayarkon in 1993. And Firestone said he’s intent on making a good impression in Israel.
“I am so stoked – all I’m focused on is hitting it as hard as I can,” he said. “I told the crew, ‘You better bring your A-game on this trip,’” he said, before melding his Firestone/Jackson brains into one. “We want to spread love and positivity, but in a party atmosphere. It’s so important to me. I want people to be smiling.” Shamone!
For ticket information, https://www.eventim.co.il, 03-5111777, *9066.
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