Fame may be a “fleeting bitch,” according to the title character in “The Cher Show” — and who would know better? Temperamental she may be, as the musical illustrates while churning through the tumultuous highs and lows of Cher’s career, but fame has proven far from fleeting for Cher, trailing the svelte, sequined-swathed singer, actress and all-purpose diva for more than half a century now. Famous in her teens, Cher is vastly more famous today, achieving the unprecedented, improbable feat of accepting a Kennedy Center Honor the night before the opening of a Broadway musical celebrating her life and career.
“The Cher Show,” written by Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys”) and directed by Jason Moore (“Avenue Q”), will not, I fear, serve as an immortal monument to a unique career. The latest diva-bio-musical, a subgenre within the jukebox musical idiom (after the soon-to-close Donna Summer musical, with Tina Turner in the wings), it rarely escapes the draggy forces of gravity that weigh down so many bio-musicals: the murky formlessness of any life, and the challenge of weaving a star’s songbook into its events.
And yet for Cher-lovers (I consider myself one: for me the only point of Twitter is Cher, plus Chrissy Teigen), the musical provides plenty of glitter-festooned, quasi-campy diversions. Bob Mackie himself, whose central role in shaping Cher’s image is honored with a greatest-hits fashion show sequence, provided the lavish costumes. (He’s played with flirty flamboyance by Michael Berresse.) The hits, both good and gloriously bad, are all here, performed by a trio of talented actresses portraying Cher at various ages: Micaela Diamond as the “Babe,” Teal Wicks as the “Lady,” and, most spectacularly, Stephanie J. Block as the “Star.”
The writing is appealingly infused with some of Cher’s own sardonic humor, and is delivered with silky comic timing by Block, whose smoky contralto uncannily evokes Cher’s own. And for a lagniappe: plenty of buffed-and-polished male eye candy for Cher’s fans to ogle. Ultimately, however, like so many similar shows, the structural mechanics of “The Cher Show” creak and grind so loudly that they threaten to drown out the music, metaphorically speaking.
At least there is something endearing in the show’s winking self-consciousness about its scattershot nature. While most bio-musicals strain to smooth transitions and provide some kind of overriding arc, “The Cher Show” is often content to throw up its hands and lurch forward by having one of the Chers say something like, “Okay, moving on to the next part of the story” or, addressing her second baby, “It’s time for Mommy to take you and Chaz to New York and be an actress!” Um, ok. (Presumably for personal reasons — Cher is one of the show’s three producers — Chaz’s later status as a pioneering transgender celebrity is never addressed.) And rather than simply have each actor playing Cher hand off the baton as she ages, they often share the stage at the same time, bickering or bucking each other up in a metatheatrical touch that proves surprisingly effective.
More problematic is the matter of the music. It spans many eras and genres (unlike, say, that of Donna Summer), and as with most pop songbooks, there is no easy way to integrate the tunes and the storyline. There are not too many giggle-inducing moments — although when Emily Skinner, playing Cher’s mother, crooned a few bars from “Half Breed” to a sad-child-Cher, I couldn’t resist a chortle — but with a few exceptions, such as “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” used as a lament for the end of her first marriage, the songs are mostly just flung throughout the story like spilled bugle beads. They are performed with marvelous gusto by the actors, with Block’s commanding presence taking first honors, but they rarely infuse the proceedings with any emotional depth or dramatic texture.
The first act encompasses Cher’s childhood (I’m afraid there is a line in which the young Cher says, “I’m going to sing and act and be famous like in the movies!”) but mostly focuses on her relationship with Sonny Bono (a funny, squeakily nasal Jarrod Spector), who discovers and grooms her. Fame arrives when they travel to London for “Top of the Pops.” Las Vegas then beckons, and then they break into the mainstream with their 1970s variety show.
An overarching theme emerges — and is frequently, if not relentlessly, underscored — when Cher, as frustration with Sonny’s domineering simmers, complains: “The director, the writers, the censors, you, Sonny – it’s always a bunch of guys telling me what to do.” Enter, ahem, Lucille Ball, with some (implausibly phrased, but apparently real) advice: “You’re going to get the hell outta that marriage and that contract so you can do another show – a show for strong, complicated, fabulous women like us.”
Done, and done.
The second act is more diffuse and less cohesive. As Cher rides the crests and the hollows of fame, it often feels like we are scrolling down a Wikipedia page. Blink and you’d miss her marriage to Gregg Allman. Her movie career — cast by Mike Nichols in “Silkwood” (lost Oscar), followed by “Mask” (no nomination!) and of course “Moonstruck” (won Oscar) — is bluntly billboarded in expository dialogue.
The romance with the much younger Rob Camilletti (the bagel guy, virtually a cameo played by Michael Campayno), staged to Cher’s 1980s hit “I Found Someone,” crashes and burns in the glare of the paparazzi in a matter of a few minutes. And then comes a mysterious two-year illness that stopped her movie career in its tracks and led to the ignominy of infomercials. (Although in retrospect, celebrity infomercials were really just the precursor of sponsored Instagram posts, and I don’t hear anybody mocking the Kardashians as they rake in the millions.) As the show grasps for an ending, it hits a near-comic nadir when Sonny — or rather his ghost — returns to comfort the temporarily down-and-out Cher, and she sadly says, “Are you really dead?” (Answer: yes.)
This is not the mark of exquisitely delicate writing, but then delicacy has never been among Cher’s attributes. (She would not have thrived if it were.) While it will by no means satisfy musical theater purists, “The Cher Show” does hold up a wobbly funhouse mirror to the actual experience of its central character. Unlike most stars, who stick to their lanes, Cher famously careered from career to career (to quote Sondheim). If “The Cher Show” is disorderly, it’s probably because Cher’s life often has been. For that matter, so are most people’s lives, whether you tangle with fame or not.
“The Cher Show” opened on Dec. 3, 2018 at the Neil Simon Theatre.
Creative: Book by Rick Elice; Directed by Jason Moore; Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli; Scenic Design by Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis; Costume Design by Bob Mackie; Lighting Design by Kevin Adams; Sound Design by Nevin Steinberg; Video Design by Darrel Maloney; Projection Design by Darrel Maloney.
Producers: Flody Suarez, Jeffrey Seller and Cher.
Cast: Stephanie J. Block, Micaela Diamond, Teal Wicks, Michael Berresse, Michael Campayno, Matthew Hydzik, Emily Skinner, Jarrod Spector, Marija Abney, Carleigh Bettiol, Taurean Everett, Michael Fatica, Ashley Blair Fitzgerald, Michael Graceffa, Blaine Alden Krauss, Sam Lips, Tiana Okoye, Angel Reda, Jennifer Rias, Christopher Vo, Aléna Watters and Charlie Williams.