2 guys have a ball as Michael Jackson on Broadway
This March 25, 2013 photo shows actors Jibreel Mawry, left, and Raymond Luke Jr. posing outside the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York, where their show "Motown: The Musical," is playing. The two 12-year-olds are alternating taking on the roles of young Michael Jackson, young Stevie Wonder and a young Berry Gordy. (AP Photo/Mark Kennedy)
NEW YORK (AP) — If making your Broadway debut at age 12 doesn't sound scary enough, imagine doing it in an iconic role. Now triple it.
That's what Raymond Luke Jr. and Jibreel Mawry are facing. They're taking turns portraying a preteen Michael Jackson, a young Motown founder Berry Gordy and an adolescent Stevie Wonder in "Motown: The Musical."
"It's a big step," acknowledges a soft-spoken Jibreel backstage at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. "We went from local performances around town to Broadway."
The musical portrays Motown's first 25 years through the eyes of Gordy and is punctuated with a stunning collection of vintage hits and energetic dance numbers.
Jibreel, from Detroit, and Raymond, from Los Angeles, beat hundreds of hopefuls in a national search and now find themselves sharing a tiny dressing room in New York, juggling schoolwork and keeping up with last-minute changes to the show.
"I don't think either one of them had ever seen a Broadway show prior to this," says director Charles Randolph-Wright. "So to all of a sudden be starring in this show where you can't get a ticket, in a theater with 1,500 seats, it's quite a different thing from being in your high-school auditorium or the mall."
A recent visit backstage revealed two happy, polite and remarkably talented youngsters. The door of Room 14 has both an official sign with their names in typeset letters and a homemade one just below with the word "Motown" in bright colored-in letters and their signatures.
Just as a visitor knocked, the sound of the boys singing was heard. They weren't belting out Katy Perry or Kanye West. It was a pretty great version of "You Can't Stop the Beat" from "Hairspray."
"We have a lot of fun in here," says Raymond.
Of the three roles they play, Michael Jackson is the toughest, requiring the most singing and dancing, including several classic Jackson Five hits like "I Want You Back" and "The Love You Save."
They've studied footage of Jackson as well as his influences, including Jackie Wilson and James Brown. "Michael is someone who felt the music. He WAS the music," says Raymond.
Adds Jibreel: "He was always so smooth onstage. He held back when he was offstage, but then when that spotlight hit him onstage, he was a whole different person."
Jibreel was introduced to Jackson's music at age 5 by his mother and has made several appearances mimicking the King of Pop. He helped teach Raymond the finer points, including to keep smiling and to keep moving.
"I wasn't comfortable with smiling. I was the kind of singer that just stands still," says Raymond. Of his co-star, he adds admiringly: "When he's Michael, he's like a whole other Michael. He's like Michael Jr."
Jibreel, whose YouTube handle is JuniorMJ1000, auditioned by sending in a video but, just to be sure, his family drove him to New York to audition in person as well. He was called back to join a workshop and then finally this winter got word he had landed the Broadway gig.