'The Cher Show': Theater Review
Broadway favorite Stephanie J. Block turns back time to lead a cast bedecked in Bob Mackie creations through a glittering musical recap of the title diva's many-splendored life and career.
The indestructible Cher managed to escape with her dignity intact earlier this year from the Greek Island shipwreck that was Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, thanks largely to her powerful shield of self-irony. That armor, along with her talent and charisma, has cocooned the decades-defying supernova throughout her epic career, even helping her make the embarrassing sketch writing on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, back in the early '70s, pass for funny. Her characteristic sleepy-eyed drollery is all over The Cher Show, not least in the delectable star turn of Stephanie J. Block, one of three performers playing the Goddess of the Eternal Farewell Tour at various ages.
That triplicate device was used less effectively last season in the woeful Summer: The Donna Summer Show, which paid tribute to another gay icon, albeit one less comfortable with that status and less endowed in the sense-of-humor department.
The major difference here is that the diva trio — identified, in descending order of age and worldliness, as Star (Block), Lady (Teal Wicks) and Babe (Micaela Diamond) — interact far more extensively. So we get Cher at three distinct points in her evolution, cracking wise and offering cautionary advice, encouragement and consolation through her ups and downs. That quasi-interior dialogue is often quite affecting.
The Cher Show also has the distinct advantage of the boss being behind the beaded curtain as a producer, lending a personal investment that carries it through the rough patches and choppy storytelling of Rick Elice's uneven book. There's an authentic emotional charge in "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me Yet," an anthem of empowered resilience smartly repurposed from the 2010 big-screen travesty, Burlesque.
Is the show good? Certainly not in the sense of traditional musical-theater craft. Would I see it again? Duh, already planning on it. Director Jason Moore's production, which breaks new frontiers on Broadway for bare midriffs, underboobs, wigs and paillettes, unashamedly embraces its abundance of trashy-flashy, tacky vintage-Vegas kitsch. But it's also slyly fabulous and imbued with a plucky feminist spirit that's quite stirring, basically recounting the story of how the innately shy Cherilyn Sarkisian stopped letting men tell her what to do and found the strength to run her own show.
The baby gay millennial sitting a couple seats down from me could not stop fist-pumping, whooping and "yas kween"-ing through the entire performance. That was annoying for a minute but eventually became part of the experience. For all its flaws and unapologetic excesses, I had a blast at The Cher Show, as will any fan.
The other factor in the musical's favor is that while it traces a remarkable career and imparts valuable lessons in self-determination, it's also completely insane. Where else on Broadway could you hope to see a biography almost randomly punctuated by a fashion parade of outrageous Bob Mackie creations worn by red carpet rule-breaker Cher over the decades?
Mackie's costumes throughout — and there are what appear to be hundreds of them — provide an enjoyably over-stimulating wardrobe high. Of course, the bejeweled body stocking with giant black lace warrior wings is to die for ("Do not try this at home, queens," warns Star), but I personally loved the caveman-chic hippie getups that got Sonny and Cher kicked out of a London Hilton during their breakthrough period. (Would someone please bring back the shag vest and harlequin bellbottoms?) Mackie also makes amusing appearances as a character, played with a sardonic arched eyebrow by Michael Berresse, and flanked by Taurean Everett as his diligent assistant, kind of like more sober versions of Mugatu and Todd from Zoolander that also dance.
Among the show's nuttier moments is an encounter with Lucille Ball, when Cher is concerned about how the American public will react to her separation from Sonny Bono (Jarrod Spector) after he has worked her to exhaustion and shafted her out of a financial stake in their company. "Fuck him," snarls Lucy, played by Emily Skinner as a brassy vaudevillian ham. Hilariously, she then launches into a big-sisterly take on "Heart of Stone," all the while chugging on a cigarette. "My hand to God, guys, this conversation actually happened," Block's Star tells us in one of many wry, fourth wall-breaking asides peppered through the show.
The always-terrific Skinner's more substantial role is as Cher's single mother, Georgia Holt, a tough cookie who teaches her daughter to stand up to bullies with a few improbably inspirational lines from "Half Breed."
Thankfully, the majority of those early-'70s hits with their outre narratives are not shoehorned into the plot here but used as performance numbers — "Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves" after Cher goes solo on TV, rocking an outfit from the Sexy Fortune Teller Collection; and "Dark Lady" as a dance interlude, with the sizzling Ashley Blair Fitzgerald slaying the hunky male chorus (nobody can accuse this show of failing to recognize its audience), while romantic rivals Sonny and Gregg Allman (Matthew Hydzik) face off in song. Allman, the Southern rock stoner who became Cher's second husband, also sports a killer look — suede leisure suit, Wolfman mutton chops and a veil of flaxen Joni Mitchell hair.
Of the men in Cher's life, the most thankless treatment goes to Rob Camilletti (Michael Campayno). The mullet-topped employee of a bagel bakery in Queens met Cher at her 40th birthday party when he was 23, and appeared in her music video for "I Found Someone" — a frightful late-'80s artifact that must be seen. He was unprepared for the paparazzi assault and thus makes a quick exit here, leaving Cher momentarily broken-hearted. But all of her romantic partners are regarded with generous affection in the show, even — or perhaps especially — Sonny, despite his antediluvian, exploitative ideas about women in business.
Also on the personal side, Cher's two children make only discreet appearances as babies; it seems an admirably supportive choice that her transgender son Chaz is never referred to by his birth name, Chastity, despite being a part of the TV years, pre-transition.
The songs are featured non-chronologically. The most creative use of a familiar hit to advance the narrative is "The Beat Goes On," with Diamond's Babe working a gold shimmy dress and being carried about by the guys as she walks us, Bob Fosse-style, through the stop-start progress of Cher's acting career, right up to the Oscar for Moonstruck.
At times, the music choices are incongruous, but mostly you just think, OK, why not? Like when Cher is auditioning to do Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean for Robert Altman (Berresse again) on Broadway and he prompts her to forget the script and just emote, allowing Block to stop the show by big-belting "The Way of Love." More conventional in terms of story sense is Block and her Cher sisters closing Act I with a powerhouse "Song for the Lonely." When Lady then continues agonizing over the Sonny split, Star patiently reminds her, "Sweetheart, we just did a whole song about that." Such meta touches are very much integral to the spirit of the show.
Director Moore (Avenue Q on stage, Pitch Perfect on screen) and set designers Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis riff on ideas patented by Michael Bennett in Dreamgirls and A Chorus Line, with a shimmering curved wall in almost constant motion — separating and reconfiguring, with panels that flip into full mirrors. It's busy, but it works. And the extensive use of LED and video (by projection designer Darrel Maloney) is appropriate for a star whose medium in her formative years was as much television as music, with Kevin Adams' splashy concert-style lighting bridging the gap into live performance. Christopher Gattelli's choreography generally leans toward period pastiche — it serves its purpose without being terribly memorable.
The framing device of Cher participating in a variety show chronicling her life story, which drew criticism in the show's Chicago tryout, has been dropped. Block now takes charge from the start, opening with "If I Could Turn Back Time" before dismissing the assembled sailors (remember that video?), introducing Lady and Babe and then doing exactly as the song suggests. As clunky and exposition-heavy as Elice's book often becomes, it's frequently laugh-out-loud funny and always warmly celebratory of its subject, without being hagiographic.
The same goes for Block's spectacularly commanding performance. Wicks and Diamond both are appealing presences who carry their weight in book scenes and songs, but neither comes close to owning the stage with the supreme authority of the more experienced Block. Her take on Cher goes beyond impersonation into loving, entirely respectful homage, and while the vocal likeness is uncanny, it's also sufficiently distinctive to prevent the characterization and song interpretations from seeming second-hand. She's a stunner, right at home in the spotlight.
Of the supporting cast, the clear standout is Spector's Sonny, who suggests the Napoleon complex without becoming too unsympathetic. His early-period mop-top beatnik look gets big laughs, as do his famously nasal vocals on "I Got You Babe." But he's a genuine character, not a caricature — though it's doubtful the real Bono ever had that chiseled upper-body definition. And while Sonny's TV shtick with Cher was based around him being the butt of her jokes — most of them about his diminutive height — as portrayed here, Sonny had the confidence to choose that role. What's more important is that the chemistry between them conveys both love and enduring friendship.
Music supervisor, orchestrator and arranger Daryl Waters does an ace job with the wide-ranging song selection, including not just Cher's hits but others by contemporary artists over the years. Waters honors the original period sounds while shaping the score into a cohesive musical mosaic. Of course it all climaxes with a triumphant medley of electronic dance-pop hits — "Believe," "Strong Enough," "Woman's World" — with the names of a succession of tours from 1999 to the present flashing on the rear screen. It goes without saying that Cher pretty much erased the reductive term "comeback" simply by refusing ever to go away. "You haven't seen the last of me," she promises at the end. Praise be.
Venue: Neil Simon Theatre, New York
Cast: Stephanie J. Block, Teal Wicks, Micaela Diamond, Michael Berresse, Michael Campayno, Matthew Hydzik, Emily Skinner, Jarrod Spector, Marija Juliette Abney, Carleigh Bettiol, Taurean Everett, Michael Fatica, Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, Michael Gracetta, Blaine Alden Krauss, Sam Lips, Tiana Okoyo, Angel Reda, Jennifer Rias, Christopher Vo, Alena Watters, Charlie Williams
Book: Rick Elice
Director: Jason Moore
Set designers: Christine Jones, Brett J. Banakis
Costume designer: Bob Mackie
Lighting designer: Kevin Adams
Sound designer: Nevin Steinberg
Video & projection designer: Darrel Maloney
Music director: Andrew Resnick
Music supervisor, orchestrations & arrangements: Daryl Waters
Choreographer: Christopher Gattelli
Executive producers: Roger Davies, Lindsay Scott, Larry Poindexter
Presented by Flody Suarez, Jeffrey Seller, Cher