It’s ironic that just as SUMMER was announcing its Broadway closing, another diva bio musical, THE CHER SHOW, is opening. The two are conspicuously similar in their casting device, narrative structure and theme. Three actors play each diva in different life stages. Their stories enfold as memoir with the three interacting at different points in time. The theme is personal empowerment, filtered through a romantic lens of ambitious talent and the men in their lives.
The comparison ends there. Donna Summer hid behind a diva disco façade. Cher’s emotions have always been as naked as her open face, her expressiveness as big as her 21 million Twitter following , and her superstardom in the multi-media universe (recordings, TV, videos, movies and concerts) as amazing as the self-energy that powered her ever-changing success. From her early, hippie days with Sonny Bono to her current status as national treasure with her recent Kennedy Center Award, Cher remains an authentic original, a real personality. It’s no wonder why we love her like we do. THE CHER SHOW is a lot more fun than SUMMER (both suffer from weak books) because Cher is, well, Cher.
THE CHER SHOW survives the limitations of its book because of a totally compelling performance by Stephanie J. Block (last seen on Broadway in “Falsettos”) as the mature, “Star” Cher and a production design that captures show biz razzle dazzle - that glittering hybrid of Las Vegas glitz, television tinsel, Hollywood glamour and rock concert spectacle.
Block doesn’t impersonate Cher so much as create a masterful interpretation of Cher’s voice and movement: Cher's signature nasal and throaty vocals, her neck arching into a gentle head toss, and her vampish, hip-slung, slinky strut. Teal Wicks as the mid-career, wise-cracking, “Lady” Cher and Micaela Diamond as the young, “Babe” Cher are fine, too, each recalling different aspects of Cher’s voice and mannerisms. But it’s Block who commandeers the show right from the start with one of Cher’s biggest pop hits “If I Could Turn Back Time”.
And on that cue, THE CHER SHOW skips down memory lane with a cascade of almost three dozen pop hits more or less integrated into Cher’s life story. Cher’s Armenian father, from whom she inherited her non-American, exotic looks, is absent from the 1950s, suburban Los Angeles household. Cher gets ridiculed on school playgrounds as the ugly duckling but her unconditionally loving mother, Georgia, teaches Cher to believe in herself. After seeing Disney’s “Dumbo” as a little girl, she is destined to “be an actress.” A stepfather abandons the household. As a teenage back-up singer she meets Sonny Bono, a hustling producer, quick to recognize and exploit talent. He markets himself and Cher as an American hippie duo overseas on the British “Top of the Pops” television show. On return to the US they hit the Billboard charts big time. The CBS “Sonny and Cher Show” follows. Cher breaks up the partnership when she discovers Sonny had her sign a contract where his company owns her.
Director Jason Moore (“Shrek”, “Fully Committed” and “Avenue Q”), along with choreographer Christopher Catelli (“Newsies” and currently the revival of “My Fair Lady”) keep the muscular ensemble of a fourteen men and women moving feverishly, even when a number isn’t required , like the Dave Clark Five performing “I Like It Like That” on the British variety show. Or they insert an uber Las Vegas style dance routine, like “Dark Lady” with an amazingly-lithe ensemble member, Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, substituting for Cher, in the company of the male ensemble in black leather gear.
The scenery –moving panels, sometimes mirrored, sometimes mega-watt, marquee backdrops – keep the energy high. But it’s the wardrobe by costume designer Bob Mackie, Cher’s legendary fashion impresario throughout her six decade career that most visually informs the show. Mackie not only, recreates the iconic gowns for Cher’s Oscar appearances but also an entire fashion show (completely unnecessary to the plot). The fashion sequence, which recalls George Cukor’s Technicolor fashion show in 1939 B&W film classic “The Women”, achieves the show’s highest moment of camp when, after a dozen female beauties clad as pirate queens to Ziegfeld goddesses appear, a bare-chested (and nearly bare-assed) perfectly sculpted African American male ensemble member in floor-length native American headdress struts his stuff. The audience hoots.
Back to Cher. After realizing she’s being ripped-off by Sonny, Cher takes charge of herself, all the while supporting Chastity and mother Georgia. She falls in love with rocker Gregg Allman, while preserving a professional creative relationship with Sonny. Author Rick Elice weaves into the chronology related Cher hits like “Half Breed” (her mixed background), “You Better Sit Down Kid” (truth-telling about her alcoholic stepfather), and, of course “I Got You Babe” (the Sonny and Cher anthem).
Elice’s shallow book gets real wobbly in Act 2. It’s hard to turn Cher’s tutelage by director Robert Altman for her first dramatic stage appearance on Broadway into song. Elice necessarily integrates Cher’s famous eulogy of Sonny, but skips Chastity’s transgendering to Chaz (although in Act 1 as a baby girl in Cher’s arms he’s wrapped in a baby blue blanket instead of cis pink.) Cher’s disappointed that she doesn’t win Best Supporting Actress for “Silkwood” and miffed that the Motion Picture Academy ignores her work in “Mask”. She finally gets the Oscar for “Moonstruck”. (Elice works-in that movie’s famous line, “Snap out of it!”, later.)
Cher falls in love with working guy Rob Camitelli who gets arrested for beating up a reporter stalking her. Their worlds are too far apart. Cher’s luck in film roles falters. (She rejected the Susan Sarandon part in “Thelma and Louise”.) She turns to hawking beauty products on QVC, but finds strength (cue “Strong Enough”) in returning to her true love - singing and the concert stage. THE CHER SHOW boasts lots of fabulously costumed, big production numbers, but the showstopper is Block’s rousing solo rendition of “The Way of Life", performed by her in everyday denim on an unadorned stage.
In a triumphant medley of her biggest hits, Cher barrels through her series of world tours which started in 1999. The crowd-pleasing finale is a mash-up of the three Chers singing “Believe”, a reprise of “Strong Enough” and “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me”. For the curtain bows, the band orchestra sends the cheering audience off to the tune of “Take Me Home.”
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