Moonwalking with Uncle Dad
Local musicians and actors pull together tribute to Michael Jackson’s Thriller
For many of us who came of age during the early-to-mid 1980s (ahem), Michael Jackson’s Thriller is sacred music. However, despite its nearly untouchable dance-pop songcraft, and the fact that it came to define an era as much as any Beatles or Elvis album ever did, the work—like all popular classics—is not untouchable and should be assessed and reinterpreted.
But, if you are going to touch it, you better either totally rock it, or do something completely different with it. The Uncle Dad’s Art Collective is going to try to do both. Tonight (Dec. 5), the newly formed cooperative of local musicians, actors, writers, visual artists and production people will kick off a three-night stand at the 1078 Gallery of This is Thriller! A Musical Tribute to Michael Jackson, an original musical-theater production that combines a live track-to-track recreation of the nine-song album with the story arc of an original play, plus some dancing, special effects and a dash of puppetry.
“You don’t just want to see the music videos, and you’re not going to get just the music videos,” said playwright/director Joey Moshiri during a recent pre-rehearsal interview.
The play will bring together most of the powers of the Uncle Dad’s collective—which, in addition to 30-year-old Moshiri, a local-theater regular, includes the band members and performance artists shared between local jazz experimenters Bogg and theatrical-rockers the Pageant Dads, plus new experimental dance troupe Everybody in Outer Space, among others. All told, 10 musicians, 10 actors, and five or six behind-the-scene folks are involved in the production.
Originally, the musical’s producer, Josh Hegg (keyboardist for Bogg, Clouds on Strings), wanted to do a cover night, with his band and local musicians playing the songs from Thriller in the order they appear. But when Hegg mentioned that they might think about doing something more “special,” the gears started turning in Moshiri’s head.
“By the end of the day … I had the whole idea outlined on scraps of paper,” he said, and three days later, the script was finished.
“I let the album kind of speak to me,” Moshiri said of the process. “The Girl is Mine,” with Michael Jackson (played by David Kamrar) and Paul McCartney (played by Bogg/Pageant Dads bassist Gavin Fitzgerald) vying for the same woman became the love triangle at the heart of the play, and the “doggone girl” in question is now the character of “Billie Jean” (played by Chico songstress Aubrey Debauchery). “[I] let the context of the album itself kind of tell the story,” Moshiri explained.
The content of the album’s videos also played a part in the inspiration, including the zombies and werewolf from “Thriller,” one of which will be responsible for the death of a character. Shocking as that may be, Moshiri teased that “there’s a much better twist” than that in store.
This is Thriller! marks the first time Moshiri has written or directed a full-length play, and his work on the production and with the Uncle Dad’s crew are the result of two of his artistic outlets—community theater and photographing live music—crossing paths … and one of those paths hitting a roadblock.
Moshiri developed his acting chops during sketch-comedy shows at the Blue Room Theatre and in the musicals of the now-defunct Chico Cabaret (the pinnacle for him was being cast as Eddie in the Cabaret’s The Rocky Horror Show—“It was like a dream come true.”) After the Cabaret closed, and the sketch shows fell off during one of the Blue Room’s recent reorganizations, Moshiri started looking for other outlets for getting on stage and found one in the like-minded members of Bogg, whom he’d met after taking photos at one of their shows.
The busy Bogg players started branching out into theater with special holiday shows at the Blue Room and 1078 Gallery, and by way of the offshoot band/theater troupe, the Pageant Dads, with whom Moshiri collaborated for their recent Pageant Dads Experience show at the Blue Room.
“There’s a lot of fingers in the same pie,” Moshiri said of their common interests.
And, he added that, even though they are just pulling everything together in the few days before opening night, he’s confident that this energized group can pull it off.
“We want to make a beautiful art project,” he said