Interview with ‘Michael’: Surrey-bound South African Dantanio tells 1,600 rival singers to beat it

Q&A with the man who gets his thrills as star of a touring tribute to Mr. Jackson

SURREY — In a call to South Africa, the man known as Dantanio picked up the phone.

The longtime musician, born and raised in Johannesburg, stars in Michael Jackson: HIStory, a tour of which will stop at Surrey’s Bell Performing Arts Centre on Friday, July 21.

In case you hadn’t guessed, the show is a full-scale stage production in tribute to the King of Pop, who died eight years ago after recording a vast library of hit songs.

“Thriller,” “Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Beat It,” “ABC” – the tunes are more than familiar to Dantanio, who shed some light on the production in conversation with the Now-Leader.

How did you end up starring in the show?

“Fortunately for me, I was part of a huge audition that was arranged to replace the previous lead performer in the show, and I was selected from 1,600 performers worldwide.… It was quite a big pool of people.”

How did you make that happen?

“I had sent my M.J. performance clips all around the world, to London, to Australia, Vegas, Japan, all these places, and Showtime Australia came back with a reply. After they saw my video and heard me sing, they asked if I could do it live, so I had to re-audition for the director, Johnny (Van Grinsven), to show him that I could do it all live – sing and dance and perform like Michael did. And not just that, I had to speak like Michael, because that’s part of the show, too – becoming Michael Jackson, you know.”

How long does it take for you to prepare for a show?

“Getting into the zone, what I do is, the moment I step into the theatre, it’s really a mind shift, a personality shift, and when I’m backstage in my dressing room getting ready, my transformation takes about two hours – a bit more than that, actually, and most of that is just for the makeup. You have to get the contouring just right, the wig just right, the colours right, the eyebrows – it’s a big transformation.”

With that much effort, you must really love what you do.

“I love it, I really do. It’s a dream come true, and I know people say that a lot, but I’ve been performing and singing Michael’s music since I was nine years old. When he came out with the Bad album, that’s when I was learning the Moon Walk, because at the time I was introduced to his music by my big brother. I caught him playing it one Saturday morning and it was like, ‘Don’t stop til you get enough’ (sings lyrics), and it was like, oh, who’s THAT? He told me, and I needed to know more about this music and the man singing, and I used to steal his tapes, the Thriller album on cassette, you know. I used to play it so much that it would wind and wind and it broke, and I had to fix it with tape so he didn’t catch me stealing it. That was just one of those moments, you know.”

What’s your favourite song to perform?

“Oh, don’t ask me that question! It’s so tough to decide, because it’s such a huge catalogue to choose just one. But to perform, it’s ‘Billie Jean,’ that is my standout song, for two reasons. One, the audience knows what’s coming, you know, with the buildup and everything, and two, most of all, we still get that huge applause when the drum starts that beat — boom, bap, boom, bap. I mean, the place just goes crazy. For that song, it’s just the audience and Michael in the spotlight, just one on one.”

Judging by the video I’ve seen, the show is quite the production.

“Yes, as a company we’ve tried to put together the ultimate Michael Jackson experience for his fans. The show consists of a huge cast – we’re talking five or six musicians, four dancers, myself, two backup singers, a technical crew, lights, we use three screens, smoke machines, costumes – the changes I go through are incredible. We have over 22 costume changes during the show, or more. Sometimes it’s a belt or a hat, a glove, all that is part of those costume changes. The experience is to the point where, when Michael appears on stage, you know, it’s a really big opening to the show, with that suspense Michael always had.”

Do you meet fans of the show?

“We performed in Singapore and it was one of the first times I did the show, in 2015, and a lady came up to me after the show and she said, ‘I’ve seen Michael Jackson in concert, seven of them, and tonight I had to remind myself that this is not Michael Jackson on stage here.’ So what a blessing to hear that. It’s scary, but you gotta commit. When I’m stage, Dantanio doesn’t exist, I really try to push my greatest Michael Jackson, you know.”

Do you do this show full-time?

“I do it on demand and depending on the contract I get. I am a commercial artist here in South Africa, a singer and songwriter, and I produce (music) a little bit as well. I’ve written and produced for a few local and national artists here in South Africa, but Michael Jackson has always been that standout thing, that personal thing. Like, if I ever wanted to be like someone, I would want to be like Michael Jackson, and fortunately I’m able to perform like him. That’s a great blessing, too.”

Will the show take up most of your time this summer?

“The schedule is quite tight, so it’s almost an in-and-out situation, because of the demand for the show. We’re trying to fit everyone in as much as we can. We’re looking forward to summer there, because I’ll be leaving winter here in South Africa during that time. It’ll be nice to go there and enjoy the sunny days. We do Canada for awhile, in July, and then we head down to America, L.A. and places like that. I’m looking forward to being there and meeting new fans, because it’s my first visit to that side of North America.”

For more details, visit mjhistoryshow.com, or CLICK HERE for tickets. In addition to a performance at the Bell in Surrey, the Michael Jackson: HIStory show is at Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre on July 22, as part of a tour of Western Canada.

tom.zillich@surreynowleader.com