Theater Review: “Never Ever Land” Explores the Michael Jackson Allegations Through a Problematic Lens

On October 27, 2019, in Los Angeles, I attended the final performance of the world premiere staging of the play “Never Ever Land”, written by Rider Strong, directed by Michael A. Shepperd, and produced by Andrew Carlberg. Several Michael Jackson fan community members were in attendance, including Charles Thomson (investigative reporter and Legal Correspondent for The MJCast), Angela Kande, “Square One” documentary creator Danny Wu, and others.

In the play’s press release, it is described as offering “a new perspective on one of the most notorious trials of all time, as well as our culture’s obsession with celebrity.” I was compelled by this, and very curious about how they would approach this issue, and what stance they would take regarding Michael Jackson.

While the play is based on the 1993 Jackson allegations, and the characters are representative of the members of the Chandler family, I want to emphasize that this is a fictional storyline. The facts about the family and the sequence of events are intentionally distorted. This is done, I assume, for the sake of artistic freedom, and perhaps also as protection from criticisms around accuracy–or lawsuits. And also because, ultimately, this play is not truly about Michael Jackson. (Except that it is also completely about him. I will explain my problems with this contradiction later.)

The show is, according to promotional materials, about the lasting effects on one family who has been “seduced by fame and greed”. Michael Jackson’s name is not uttered once through the entire production, though all transitional scenes use slightly warped, MIDI-style versions of Jackson songs, and he is referred to as “the White Whale” several times.

Looking at this play purely from a production standpoint, it has some merits: I found the acting to be powerful, and there was something compelling about the idea of a long-term implosion of family and identity because of the choices of the parents. However, I did not find the characters particularly sympathetic, even as the audience is supposed to connect with the trauma of the adult-version of the character based on Jordan Chandler, named here “Jacob Gable”.

The story alternates between two parallel timelines: We are taken back and forth between the ‘90s and a contemporary storyline set in 2012. I felt hopeful during the first half of the production, which focuses on how the parents fall into the world of celebrity. While they are pushing one son, “Tim”, to be in commercials and criticizing him for being overweight, they are pushing the other, “Jacob”, to secure a friendship with the unnamed, famous entertainer who never had a childhood. The mother is also trying to establish her own acting career, while the controlling, heavy-drinking, rage-filled dentist father is peddling his screenplay.

Opening the play, and woven throughout it, is the 2012 story about the adult Tim, who is trying to get a job with a tabloid journalism company, which is based on TMZ. He claims that he has absolute proof that his brother lied about the allegations. As a Jackson fan, this is, of course, attention-grabbing. It seemed that the play was moving in the direction of casting doubt on the allegations as a whole.

However, the second half of the play takes a very different turn. It veers from the allegations (and avoids making any statement at all about them, which will frustrate most fans) and puts complete focus on how the family has been damaged. It becomes clear that Tim is selling his brother’s secrets as a means to have a career and, finally, a life of his own. Jacob, the character based on Jordan Chandler, clearly has massive personal problems as an adult, but the play leaves the audience in the dark about the source of his trauma. And, ultimately, Tim reveals that there may not be any deep, dark secret, after all.

Naturally, I wanted to understand the production’s stance on the allegations. That was not to be. And I can accept that. Art is, after all, about exploring ideas, evoking emotion, and encouraging discussion. It is certainly not obligated to give its audience a clear answer or opinion on any particular topic. That said, I felt abandoned by the second half of the play, and left adrift, with no real understanding of what I should be taking away from the story, especially after the high-stakes set-up in the first half. Perhaps if I had connected more with the characters, it would have been more effective. In that scenario, I can envision an ending in which I would have understood the legacy of damage set off by greedy parents and bad decisions, and could have even accepted that the production chooses to leave its representation of the allegations so ambiguous. Yet, as is, the story fizzles into nothing, and seems to lose its purpose.

But here are my two primary problems with the play:

(1) I dislike the fact that this production directly exploits Michael Jackson, using his traumatic experience for its own gains, while simultaneously refusing to comment on that situation. I simply don’t think that is right. The playwright, Rider Strong, states that this is “the story of how one family was seduced by fame and greed”—but what does that mean, in this context? What is Strong really trying to say here? Ultimately, this just feels like Jackson being used all over again.

(2) Playwright Strong also comments: “I wondered what it’s like to be known as the victim in a ridiculously famous lawsuit, especially if most people think you lied.” Common, mainstream (and uninformed) perception is that Michael Jackson settled in the ‘90s because he was guilty. Where is this idea coming from that most people think that Chandler lied? And does this mean that the underlying message of the play is really that Jackson was guilty, and the Chandler was, essentially, a double-victim? I’m left perplexed by this, and uncomfortable.

In the end, the simple truth is that I don’t know what to make of this play. It acts as if it wants to make a big statement, without making that statement. Really, I feel that this production is about the playwright’s own childhood. Strong was a child star in the ‘90s, best known for his role on “Boy Meets World”. I completely understand that he would want to explore the effects of that warped coming-of-age experience. That makes sense. But using Jackson as a vehicle is not appropriate or merited, in my view. It adds to the exact problem Strong claims he is addressing. And that simply feels wrong.

This world premiere run of “Never Ever Land” has ended, but you can learn more, including information about possible future performances here.

Article by Elise Capron.

10 Replies to “Theater Review: “Never Ever Land” Explores the Michael Jackson Allegations Through a Problematic Lens”

  1. Maria Paalberg

    Great recap! I was very curious and confused when I first heard about this play. Sad that in the end, Michael was just used to gain notoriety as usual😒🙄

    Reply
    1. Elise Capron Post author

      Thanks for reading, Maria! If it runs in other places and you get a chance to see it, I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts. -Elise

      Reply
  2. Jess Garcia

    All I can say is that in our world or normality, yes, I feel most think he’s guilty. Perhaps in Strong’s realm of the entertainment industry, that isn’t the case- which is both positive and depressing.

    Reply
  3. Rosana

    After this article, it seems to me that my beloved Michael Jackson was used to gain money and was not given Justice whatsoever in this play. 😔😔😔 STOP USING MICHAEL JACKSON JUST TO EARN MONEY
    AND DOING INJUSTICE FOR HIM. HE PASSED AWAY AS A GOOD KIND HEARTED SOUL. STOP ABUSING MICHAEL JACKSON’S KINDNESS! GIVE HIM A BREAK TO REST IN PEACE! HE’S DONE WITH HIS MISSION IN THIS CRAZY WORLD AS A GENUINE HUMANITARIAN! I would like to call the attention of John Branca regarding this matter.

    Reply
  4. Sandra

    People are too lazy to research and automatically try to tarnish Michael Jackson without any proof. This play means that the fan community will have to continue the fight for justice and that we have to follow this kind of content too.

    Reply
  5. Quentin Williams

    Why are people so obsessed with the late Michael Jackson. This poor soul was dragged through the mud and extorted for someone 15 sec. Of fame or something ultimate monetary gain. You obviously have no respect for one of the greatest entertainers in the 20th. Cen. Let this mans children have some peace in their quest to live in this world free from all hurt harm and danger. And have some respect for those who have been elevated to ancestor status. Leave this mans legacy intact.

    Reply
  6. GENESTA COLEMAN

    Thank you so much my friend unfortunately I don’t have to much to said however June 13 2005 found not guilty in 14 count people are pissoff about the verdict and they want let it go at all I’m 52 years old and being a fan forever thank you MJ cast for defending Michael Jackson and help the Jackson’s family out I only listen to 3 podcast you do great work thank you thank you hee hee shamon love mj cast

    Reply

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