Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tribute Artists Keep Michael Jackson's Memory Alive on Stage

You wake up and get ready to go to work. You definitely do not have a regular job. Because your job is to be one of the best dancers and singers the world has ever seen. Your moves have to be perfect. This is not for a music video, but a live show with no intermission. Every night. On top of this you also have to sing, and change costumes repeatedly, all while not turning into a sweaty mess on stage, losing your breath, or breaking any bones while emitting the talent and energy of nobody other than the late great Michael Jackson.

Earlier this month I was invited to the Two Year Anniversary of MJ Live, the Michael Jackson tribute show at the Crown Theater at the Rio Las Vegas. Jalles Franca was electrifying as Michael Jackson! He is one of the four MJ performers the show rotates regularly in order to be able to offer a show with no dark nights. I love this concept. One of the things I don't like about Vegas shows is after a couple of years some of them can become stale and formulaic. By using four different artists who each offer a slightly different but equally exciting version of Michael Jackson, the show has some variety which makes it interesting to see more than once while not burning out the lead performers.

The real Michael Jackson I saw only once on stage many years ago during my first ever trip to Vegas, at a one time concert called "Jackson Family Honors." While the rest of the Jacksons including Janet performed he sang only one line of a song on the MGM Grand Arena stage in 1994. But to me it was better than nothing! Fast forward to 2014, in that same arena, working at Billboard Awards as a rehearsal actor I watched the newest MJ hologram "perform." It was fun but did not to me feel like a "live" performance. For me, the essence of MJ has to pass through an actual soul, not a laser, for it to seem like one.

After the show the other night I got to thinking about the life of a tribute artist. One thing I know for sure is that Michael Jackson tribute artists do not wake up in the morning looking like this:

Jalles Franca as MJ....Photo
Not only does a tribute artist have to be spot on with the look, the sound and the moves of the King of Pop, but has to live up to every memory every person in the audience has of him and every hope they ever had to see him again "live". You are the one who can give them what they would otherwise never experience again.

If you are a top Michael Jackson tribute artist in the industry and one of the stars of MJ Live then you are not the only one. Because of the strenuous nature of the show and the demand to offer it nightly, there are four of you for this task. Jalles, Justin, Michael and Little Tony...all who embody the King of Pop and when it comes to tribute artists it does not get any more challenging in this genre than what these guys do..."becoming" Michael Jackson on a Las Vegas stage.

MJ Tribute Artists Michael Firestone & Little Tony Kouns at MJ Live Two Year Anniversary, 7/1/2014

No longer referred to only as "impersonators", but as "tribute artists," these performers have to at the very least, be actors. Just like an actor has to embody a character, whether it be one completely from a writer's imagination or a real legend like Kurt Russell's Elvis Presley or Val Kilmer's Jim Morrison, tribute artists must do this too, all while performing live, over and over again. No retakes, no editing.

A Michael Jackson tribute artist doesn't get to have an off day, or take it a little slow, and stick to mostly ballads, like a Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley impersonator. If you are performing as Michael Jackson your audience in Las Vegas every night is from all over the world. They are going to tell everyone how "MJ like" you were, which includes all the famous dance moves! Not only will they tell their friends but spread it all over social media too. You have to make them want to get up on their feet, sing along, laugh, cry, feel, and walk away feeling like they experienced...HIM.

Here are Jalles, Justin, Michael and Little Tony....the four artists of MJ Live.

"It's All for L.O.V.E."...Jalles Franca

Jalles Franca -A longtime fan of Michael Jackson, he began imitating his dance moves as a professional dancer at a venue in Las Vegas where he worked for several years. Not long after the "King of Pop" passed away, Jalles began improving and honing his skills more thoroughly in order to honor him as a tribute artist. Now, a few years later, considered one of the top Michael Jackson tribute artists in the industry, Jalles Franca shares his talent with fans at the top Michael Jackson tribute show in the United States, "MJ Live."

Justin Dean as MJ

During the past decade Justin Dean has performed numerous times in venues all over the country.
He was always a fan of Michael Jackson but his interest grew several years ago after accepting an invitation to and visiting Neverland Ranch.  Although he had always been a fan of MJ's and knew several of his dance moves, it was not long after this visit he moved to Las Vegas to perfect his tribute act.

"Jax to the Max"....Vegas Seven Magazine, 2013

Michael Firestone (below), has been imitating the moves and sound of Michael Jackson for most of his life, in one way or another. His musical background helped him perfect Jackson's sound and he has spent years perfecting the world famous dance moves. He has performed as Jackson in various shows and venues before MJ Live including "Legends in Concert" and "Moonwalker."

Michael Firestone as MJ

Little Tony Kouns as MJ

Little Tony Kouns is a well rounded artist. As an musician, singer and songwriter, he has performed for several years now as well as an MJ tribute artist. You may remember him from the show "Nashville Star" where he was a finalist.

The MJ Live Two Year Anniversary celebration I attended started with a party at the stylish El Dorado Cantina. We then headed over to the Rio Crown Theater. Dick Feeney, Darin Feinstein and Comedian Eddie Griffin (Eddie has a resident show at the King's Room at the Rio), kicked off MJ Live that night with a special introduction speech. This was an announcement that all of the net proceeds of the anniversary performance would be donated to the families of the victims of the shooting earlier this summer in Las Vegas that claimed the lives of two police officers and one civilian. 

Jalles Franca who performed that night as MJ & Producer Dick Feeney, El Dorado Cantina

Since that night I only had the privilege of seeing Jalles Franca perform as MJ, I decided to check out all four of them on YouTube and watched some live performances. Below is a link to a short performance of each. These are not all from the MJ Live Show, but various sources. I enjoyed each and every one and want to express my total respect for their talent, dedication and hard work.

Jalles Franca

Justin Dean

Michael Firestone

Little Tony Kouns:

Photos: and and some of the bios on the performers are an excerpt in part from the MJ Live website.

MJ Live is nightly at Rio Las Vegas, (9pm).

Producer Dick Feeney
Production Alicia Morse
Technical Director Donlee Cardejon
Funding, Black Star Investments LLC, Darin Feinstein 

Media Relations, Shelly Mansholt

Anna Wendt Copyright 2014

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