‘The Cher Show’ on Broadway Has Lights, Energy, Drama, Camp, but No Cher
If you’re a Cher fan, the pleasure of ‘The Cher Show’ on Broadway, starring three actresses as the icon, will be loud and clear. But you will also dearly miss the star herself.
You want a big, loud, bright, shiny slice of Vegas on Broadway? The Cher Show, which opened on Broadway Monday at the Neil Simon Theatre and-then-some delivers, with spangles, fishnets, big wigs, a 35-song strong jukebox of Cher hits primed, and even a fun autotune joke for when she gets to “Believe.”
This isn’t just spectacle, though Kevin Adams, the show’s lighting designer, and Christine Jones & Brett J. Banakis’ paneled design both rise to the razzle ‘em, dazzle ‘em, migraine-'em occasion. If you are a Cher fan, and if you want to hear portions of her songs, sung beautifully by the three ages of Cher—Stephanie J. Block barnstorming as the lead (“Star”), with Teal Wicks and Micaela Diamond as her two fierce, questioning, joshing, consoling Cher-at-other-times of her life accomplices (Wicks' character is known as “Lady” and Diamond's as “Babe”)—then this is for you.
If that sounds very like the critically panned Donna Summer musical of a few months ago, The Cher Show—directed with a few dozen megawatts of energy by Jason Moore with correspondingly dialed-way-up choreography by Christopher Gattelli and music by Daryl Walters—has a stronger narrative drive (the book is by Rick Elice) and a consistent, welcome sense of humor and wry self-reflection about itself and its subject’s roller coaster of a life.
And yet, and yet. Cher is one of the producers of this show, and so what we see on stage of her has been approved by her. This is a personal, curated musical. The dish, such as it is, is strictly portioned. The storylines and phoenix-from-ashes arcs are subject-approved.
So, what would Cher like us to know about her life? The most fascinating thing is the trajectory of her relationship with Sonny Bono (Jarrod Spector).
This the musical, very truthfully, never resolves, even at a key Cher-moves-on-with-her-life moment when she begins to sing “Strong Enough” at him, which doesn’t really work out timeline-wise, but who gives?
Sonny is here both fun lover and controlling Svengali, keeping Cher trapped in a no-money-returning, constantly performing circus. The musical goes into a surprising amount of detail, much of it repetitive, about their relationship, which on screen revolves around jokes about his height.
It feels honestly repetitive too; as if Cher knowing she could and should be free was something in her mind, running alongside the fear of what that might mean, and then, after his death, her continued love for Sonny despite the gilded shackles he had placed on her. We hear bits of ‘I Got You Babe’ more than once, segueing from affectionate to lament.
That’s the serious through-line of the musical, and her relationships with Gregg Allman (Matthew Hydzik) and Rob Camilletti (Michael Campayno) are also surfed through with TV-mini series speed.
If you want side-eye and bravura camp, Block supplies it. If you want a full tribute to Bob Mackie’s gloriously outlandish and memorable Cher costumes they are here in the most delirious fashion show New York Fashion Week has never seen staged. Tighter, more flesh, less material Mackie and Cher insist, despite the sniffy objections of a TV censor.
As this critic left the show, two people, uninvited, shared their views on the show. One older woman, with a friend, said, “I love Cher. I’ve grown up with Cher. That isn’t Cher.” I asked her why. “It was like watching a drag act,” she said. “And Cher is still alive. That wasn’t… Cher.”
And then outside, a man said he had loved every minute, that is was a worthwhile and fun night out. It was all he had hoped it would be. Eyes lit up, he said he had loved the music, the spectacle, the camp, the jokes.
Both were Cher fans, and both summed up my own split feelings about The Cher Show. It’s an enjoyable circus of spectacle and music and familiarity; and it’s also not the same as having the star itself in a big room entertaining everyone.
The success of Bruce Springsteen’s show on Broadway is because there he is, masterfully melding a strong personal narrative and music right in front of us. If Broadway’s jukebox-musical addiction needs a corrective shot in the arm, Springsteen supplies it.
The three actresses here are wonderful, strong performers: from the faltering ingenue Cher of Diamond to the growingly assertive Cher of Wicks to the commanding diva of Block. Sometimes those personalities change; when Block feels weak or unsure the other two tag in and help her out. This internal dialog is movingly plausible, especially when old demons come at the star when we would assume she is past all that.
In fact, the most lacking thing is the real story about how, after all the downturns and fallow periods, she did come back to fame. The actual mechanics of those career-re-energizing moments go unexplained, except in the best part of the musical, which is a discussion Cher has with Robert Altman (a brilliant Michael Berresse, on triple duty including as Bob Mackie) about how he should stage-act in her early 1980s Broadway debut in Ed Graczyk's Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (Altman later made it into a film.)
Here, finally, is some grit in this gaudy pearl of a show, which transitions into a weird jazz-handsy surf through Cher’s screen life, and an Oscar, finally, for Moonstruck in 1988. (And yes, expect that Oscars dress.)
The musical, at two and a half hours, is a mostly familiar trek through life moments shorn of revelation. It’s as light as a feather with sometimes piercing, though not fulfilled, intimations of depth.
Its subject has overseen a vibrant staging of her life and work that is still fiercely privacy-guarding. The Cher Show doesn’t elucidate an icon (as stipulated by that icon overseeing this show), but it determinedly supplies pumping fun and glamor as it ranges through a vivid life.
So, echoing those random fans leaving the show, consider this critic torn. Cher, and a lot of her fans whooping her every go-get-‘em line and loving every hearty partial rendition of her songs, would likely tell me to just snap out of it.
The Cher Show is at the Neil Simon Theatre, booking through May 26, 2019.