They say you can never go home again. But Lebanon-born pop star Mika, who plays the Fox Theater in Oakland Saturday, respectfully begs to differ.
He was only a toddler when his family was forced to flee their native, but civil-war-torn, Beirut.
Relocating to Paris, then London, the boy born Michael Penniman studied piano and operatic singing, then recreated himself as the Freddie Mercury-like Mika with his 2007 debut “Life In Cartoon Motion” and its single “Grace Kelly.”
With fame came a mission: To play a hometown concert.
But his plans were thwarted by the monthlong Israel/Hezbollah war in 2006, which put Beirut on lockdown.
That, it appeared, was that.
But Mika didn’t give up. Last summer, after months of complicated negotiations, the prodigal son returned to play a show in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square for 18,000 grateful fans.
“Martyrs’ Square has particular significance, because just a few weeks before we performed, the Hezbollah had been camping there and there was a curfew on the center of the city,” he says.
“I was singing all these songs that talk about identity and religion in the most open way, with a mosque on the right and a cathedral in front of me, with the biggest mix of people in the crowd, from Catholic to Muslim. So everything that was truly impressive about that gig came from the audience, not from me and my band.”
He didn’t meet Lebanese president Michel Suleiman. Hs says that even though he’s been invited to political dinners – even to dine with French president Nicolas Sarkozy – he turned down the offer.
He says, “I’m not part of that world. And it isn’t from a position of ignorance that I shun politics. It’s just from a personal preference.”
Instead, the flamboyant performer has created his own family-centered universe. One sister illustrates his albums, another works as his stylist, and a third designs all of his stage props.
“My mother actually makes a lot of my costumes, so it’s pretty much a mafia,” he says.
Mika’s music is in its own world, as well. The video for his new childhood-revisiting single “We Are Golden” features the underpants-clad artist bouncing around a poster-plastered facsimile of his teenage bedroom.
He’s glad Beirut is now back in his orbit.
“It’s an amazing place,” he says. “Like the Paris and the Geneva of the Middle East, all combined. I highly recommend that people check it out.”
IF YOU GO
Where: The Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
When: 8 p.m. Saturday