Michael Jackson keeps getting better all the time

When Michael Jackson made a brief appearance at a recent press conference to introduce his new television commercials, he was as quiet as a hothouse plant, barely speaking above a whisper. By contrast, when Jackson took the stage at Madison Square Garden here on Saturday night, he was a virtual powerhouse of rhythmic and musical energy - a larger-than-life pop phenomenon.

Despite the dire predictions about the success of his latest album, ``Bad,'' and the fact that he personally won no Grammy for it; despite all the conjectures in the press about his supposedly weird life style, hidden away with his pet chimp and the rest of his menagerie in California - despite all this, Michael Jackson continues to sing, dance, arrange, perform, and entertain with the expertise of a seasoned master, and he just keeps getting better all the time.

His show here, which was part of a world tour that began in Japan last September, was an impressive outing that focused on his latest album but also included several songs from his previous releases, ``Off the Wall'' and his all-time best seller, ``Thriller,'' as well as a brief, rather off-handed Jackson Five-ish Motown medley.

Jackson has surrounded himself with a group of talented singers, dancers, and musicians for the tour, and the show itself was a commanding blend of costumes, special effects, imaginative lighting, and sheer musical power. The backup band could not have been better.

But the focus Saturday night, as always, was Michael Jackson himself.

A less glittery and more punkish Jackson, dressed for toughness in black with metal trappings, opened the first half of the program with a bang, flanked by four male dancing partners imitating his every move. The band and backup singers were set up well in the rear of the stage to leave plenty of room for Jackson's moves.

After a shimmering version of ``Human Nature,'' punctuated by whirling mirrors casting long beams of light into the audience, Jackson launched into ``Smooth Criminal,'' from ``Bad.'' The number opened with the singer silhouetted behind a scrim, which lifted to reveal the ``criminals'' (his dance partners) in spats, fedoras, and broad pin-stripe suits. In a dramatic finale, all four were cut down by a synthesized ``machine gun.''

Jackson, in all his numbers, showed expert timing, an uncanny sense of rhythm, and sensitivity in giving the audience just so much and no more. Jackson showed a sense of humor in his duet with guitarist Jennifer Batten on ``Dirty Diana.'' Batten, with her wild, punky hair, dressed in a tigerskin outfit, became Jackson's pursuer, hounding him with her guitar, making fierce faces, and chasing him with a barrage of ominous heavy-metal screeches from her guitar.

The only rather odd moment in the show was ``Thriller.'' Perhaps it was too much to expect that the stage version of this song could top or even equal the highly original ``Thriller'' video, which had a story line, elaborate choreography, and wonderfully ghoulish costumes. Saturday night's light-up zombie costumes looked more like a salad than something scary, and Jackson sang it as if he wanted to get on to bigger and ``badder'' things. In fact, most of the best songs came from ``Bad'' - the title song, and the latest single, ``Man in the Mirror.''

But there were some high points from his older material, too. As a lead-in to ``Beat It,'' from ``Thriller,'' Jackson came flying through the air over the audience with the aid of a gigantic crane, black tail-coat flying in the wind. And he did some of his fanciest footwork on ``Billie Jean,'' from the same album.

All in all, an excellent evening. On the way out, a fellow critic, who hadn't been particularly eager to see the concert, described Jackson's performance as ``majestic.''

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