Jonathan Phillip "Sugarfoot" Moffett can practically hear the King of Pop's voice in his head as he practices his drum licks for the Cirque du Soleil show based on the music of Michael Jackson.
"Make it bigger than life," Moffett hears the Gloved One telling him, as he bears down on the beat in "Billie Jean" or "Heartbreak Hotel."
"My fans know my music. That's what they want to hear. Add some color, but don't stray too far."
In putting together "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour," the creative team behind Cirque du Soleil drew upon the expertise of several musicians and dancers who worked closely with Jackson, including Moffett, Jackson's longtime drummer, and choreographer Travis Payne.
The show was inspired by Jackson's music and dancing. When the curtain opens, the audience finds itself outside the gates of Jackson's home, Neverland. As Jackson's fans explore his life and work, they encounter giant props that nonetheless seem familiar — an oversized glove, the performer's dancing shoes.
The show incorporates more than 30 Jackson songs — from "Thriller" to "Beat It," from "Smooth Criminal" to "Dancing Machine" — that serve as the backdrop for Cirque's trademark contortionists, jugglers, tightrope walkers and balancing acts.
Moffett and Payne say the aesthetic of a three-ring circus melds well with a performer who lived in a combination zoo and amusement park.
"He was a very big fan of Cirque," Payne said. "He attended the very first tour in 1984, when it was just a tent show performing in Santa Monica."
Moffett and Payne say their job was to communicate Jackson's vision to Cirque's cast, designers and crew. But they caution that though the result is faithful in spirit to the original, it isn't identical. Some of the arrangements are quite different. And many dances originally designed as solos for the nimble superstar are now group numbers.
"It's impossible to duplicate what Michael did," said Payne, who first joined Jackson as a young dancer in 1992 and worked with him on and off for 15 years.
"Every time he performed a number, it was different. There were certain signature moves that he had, but he always hit them at a different time. It was stream of consciousness with him."
Working on the show brings back memories for both men. Moffett, who was Jackson's drummer for 30 years, still marvels at the way the superstar could create a sound in his head, and then envisage a way to produce it in real life.
"One day I went into the studio, and there was this big slamming sound that he wanted," Moffett recalls.
"He told me to go to the hardware store and buy some two-by-fours. I thought that was weird. I didn't understand at first. When I brought the lumber back, he told me to saw them it into planks of a certain length. When they were ready, he slapped them together and said: 'Yes, that's the sound I want.'
"That to me was a mark of brilliance and genius."
For his part, Payne remembers times when Jackson had to delay a project and wait for technology to be developed that could realize his vision.
"We had started working on [the short film] 'Ghosts' with Stephen King in the early 1990s," Payne recalled.
"But one day Michael realized that the ideas he wanted to convey were impossible because the special effects didn't exist to express them. He waited for the computer technology to catch up with him, and resumed when it was time. It took four years."
Jackson's former collaborators think that the Cirque show captures the sophistication underlying the King's addictive pop hooks.
"I like to say that the music is full of simple complexities, and complex simplicities," Moffett said.
"Every musician loves to play Michael's music, because if you play it correctly, you will grow as a musician. I play every single show as if he was standing in the middle of the stage. I want him to be proud of me. And I want him to look good to the audience."
If you go
"Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour" performances are at 8 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday at 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St. Tickets and fees cost $64.95-$194.80. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.