A version of my review originally appeared at: ocregister.com/entertainment/mika-501757-rey-.html
There’s a song on Mika’s latest album The Origin of Love where he continually repeats the phrase, “all I want to do is make you happy.”
The European pop star had no problem pleasing very excited fans during a sold out El Rey Theatre show. Some had made signs and waited hours in line to get prime places in front of the general admission stage, and then tried to run inside once doors opened.
On the current tour, Mika (born Michael Penniman in Beirut, but raised in Paris and London) provides a rare opportunity to experience his frequently over-the-top arrangements in a pared-down format.
Here, the lanky singer played piano; two other musicians added backing vocals, bass, keyboards, clarinet, xylophone, melodica or a drum (each guy had a single one to pound simultaneously) wherever needed.
Back in 2007, Mika’s ebullient debut disc Life in Cartoon Motion was a sensation throughout Europe and Australia. It drew comparisons to Freddie Mercury and Elton John and sold close to 8 million copies in France and the UK (five top 20 singles) alone. Stateside, “Grace Kelly” and the Grammy-nominated “Love Today” made minor inroads on the charts.
Underrated third effort Love - among my top picks of 2012 - saw Mika mix his fun, dramatic pop with some dance music strains, courtesy of collaborations with Empire of the Sun’s Nick Littlemore, EDM master DJ Benny Benassi, Pharrell Williams and Klas Ahlund (Madonna, Usher and Robyn tunes bear his handiwork).
In Los Angeles, the delightful 20-song, 90-minute set started with Mika alone at the black grand piano for “Grace Kelly.” Simply lighted by a couple dozen bulbs hanging from strings and clad in tasteful black attire, his helium falsetto vocals were more of a wonder to behold without the usual embellishments (the same held true for a finger-snapping “Lollipop”).
Before the rollicking “Blue Eyes,” Mika said he’d always wanted to play the El Rey since it was the first place he’d ever seen in show in LA. Conversely, the chatty singer also admitted to being reluctant to tour the U.S. often (“I think nobody will come”) and gravitating toward writing piano rags.
A humorous anecdote about childhood tap dancing lessons led to a sprightly “Stuck in the Middle” as the other musicians rapped on the piano for a rhythm. Later, Mika would give an example of his soft shoe talent amid the wild extended main set closer “Love Today.”
Other standout moments included the high energy “Origin of Love” (the first time I’ve heard cigarette cessation product Nicorette used in a lyric, to compare love to a drug); an elegant “Underwater,” “Make You Happy” - a stark revamp with regular Mika producer Greg Wells guesting on piano - and the empowerment anthem “Popular Song.”
The latter, in a nod to Mika’s theatrical bent, is loosely based on a song from Stephen Schwartz’s Broadway musical Wicked. Revolving around teen cliques and bullying, the personal lyrics (key line: “it ain’t a bad thing to be a loser”) were wrapped around some frantic piano work and vocals.
This rare Southern California appearance definitely breathed fresh life into Mika’s music.
Set list: Mika at the El Rey Theatre
Main set: Grace Kelly/Toy Boy/Lollipop/Blue Eyes/Billy Brown/Popular Song/Love You When I’m Drunk/ Only Lonely Man/Underwater/Stuck in the Middle/Elle Me Dit (Emily)/Hia Leah/The Origin of Love/Make You Happy/Big Girl (You Are Beautiful)/Century Man/ Relax (Take it Easy)/Celebrate/Love Today
Encore: Over My Shoulder