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Theatre in Review: The Cher Show (Neil Simon Theatre)

Stephanie J. Block and the cast. Photo: Joan Marcus.

A good portion of The Cher Show is devoted to pointing out that, throughout her long career, nobody -- writers, directors, even her first husband, Sonny Bono -- listened to her, even when it came to issues that deeply affected her career and personal life. I'm afraid that this unfortunate phenomenon continues. The lady is billed over the title as a producer, and she has been quite vocal about her satisfaction or displeasure -- depending on whom you read -- with the biographical extravaganza now casting sequins and feathers all over the Neil Simon stage. But consider this quote from an article in Billboard last summer, during the Chicago tryout: "Cher said that she wants the show to be more honest about her career and stardom. 'I am actually pushing them to be more truthful about me,' she said. 'I've already said so much about my life. It would be silly for them to come up with a Mother Teresa'."

Having seen The Cher Show, I know: These are the words of a woman crying out, begging to be heard. And has anyone listened? Clearly not, for the musical's creative team has collectively chosen to follow the same well-trodden path of other pop-star bios: This is yet another carefully airbrushed portrait, turning the subject's life into a feminist fable, the moral of which is, you can't become your true fabulous self until you get rid of all those designing men who use and abuse you.

Whether you enjoy any of these musical self-actualization seminars probably depends on your affection for the diva in question. The Cher Show benefits from the subject's breezily candid persona, but, as an account of a tumultuous life and times, it has all the incisive detail of a photo-heavy People magazine profile. The first act focuses on her rise to stardom, courtesy of her original co-star, Sonny, who marries and manages her -- taking them from pop stardom to Vegas residency to hosting their eponymous TV show -- until his Svengali tactics and lack of financial transparency become insufferable. The second act -- that is, if you can call it an act -- details, in bullet-point fashion, her ill-advised marriage to Gregg Allman and romance with Rob Camilletti, the baker who may have been the love of her life, plus her emergence as a dramatic actress, followed by illness, career and financial problems, and reemergence as the glittering, endlessly touring diva of today.

All of this information is conveyed via a series of lead-ins and crossovers -- you can't really call them scenes -- that bring us up to date on Cher's rising or falling fortunes and man problems. Even if you accept them as necessary filler between the greatest-hits song list, they include some mighty strange moments. For example, when the young Cher comes home from school, crushed because of her dark looks, why does her mother, Georgia, serenade her with "Half-Breed?" Yes, Georgia keeps insisting that "the song makes you strong," but why choose a number guaranteed to leave the little girl depressed beyond words? Why does Sonny, having died in a skiing accident, return to complain about that "stupid tree?" What are we to make of Gregg Allman's come-on line, asserting that Cher "smells like a mermaid?" (Is this a subtle allusion to the film she made with Winona Ryder? The Cher Show often leaves one musing on such points.) And why does her first meeting with Allman take place in a western saloon, where Cher, spying the musician, says, "Are you from Tennessee? Because you're the only 'ten' I see." The look of despair on the face of Stephanie J. Block, who is made to say this line -- eight times a week -- is heartrending.

Actually, I can explain that last part. According to reports, in its Chicago tryout The Cher Show had a clearly articulated concept: the TV variety show version of Cher's life, with each scene written in a kind of sketch comedy format. This has more or less been abandoned, which leaves certain scenes stranded in a mishmash of styles. Another example features Sonny and Allman being invited onto The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour -- which was briefly resurrected after their divorce -- to take part in a sing-off, with Cher as the prize. Rick Elice's book is deficient in both clarity and wit: the script is loaded with lines that barely cause a ripple in the audience. (One of the bigger laughs at the performance I attended was a joke about the British and their love for marmite. How off-topic can you get?)

The there/not-there variety show concept goes a long way toward explaining the production design. The scenery, by Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis, is a riot of glitzy effects: illuminated curves, revolving LED panels with mirrored back sides, chains of dangling LED medallions, and acres of LED video panels. Bob Mackie's costumes include all of his greatest hits, including the Mohawk spider-woman getup that Cher wore to the Oscars in the early eighties, and he also has fun with styles of several decades, including the funky fur-lined outfits that first defined Sonny and Cher; his partner in these amusing fashion crimes is the hair-and-wig designer, Charles G. LaPointe. (Seeing The Cher Show, one might reasonably conclude that she was ineluctably drawn to men with unflattering hairstyles.) Darrel Maloney's video design ranges from live IMAG (some of it treated to look like gritty 1960s videotape) to abstract color effects and pixelated images of dancers. Kevin Adams' lighting throws splashes of color everywhere, giving everything a pop-concert sheen. Nevin Steinberg's sound design is on the loud side, a decision probably taken due to the nature of the music, but one soon gets used to it.

As in Summer, the soon-to-be-gone Donna Summer bio show, the leading lady is played by three actresses. Block never disappoints, and it's fun to see how she has morphed from the uptight, neurotic Trina of Falsettos to Cher, the mature glamour-puss. (She is known as Star.) She has the voice and mannerisms down pat, and she cracks wise with such skill that even some of the book's weakest lines acquire some comic attitude. Micaela Diamond has a lean and hungry look as the young Cher (called Babe), who is itching to go places. As Lady, the middle-period Cher, Teal Wicks sometimes gets a bit lost in the shuffle, although, like the others, she has a way with Cher-tastic vocals.

Jarrod Spector adds to his gallery of pop music figures -- they include Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys and Barry Mann in Beautiful -- as Sonny, although the character is painfully underwritten: One minute he's all love and devotion, the next, a Burbank Simon Legree, cracking the whip over his beast-of-burden spouse. Emily Skinner is largely wasted as Cher's mother, showing up every few scenes to dispense girl-power homilies, but she is a riot as Lucille Ball, who tutors Cher in divesting herself of a famous business-partner/husband. Michael Berresse adds some welcome sass as Bob Mackie, Cher's guide to all things fabulous; he is unrecognizable as paunchy, hairy Robert Altman, who, improbably, tells Cher, who is auditioning for a Broadway play, to toss the script and sing her character's emotions.

And then there are the hit songs, all present and accounted for, and most of them devilishly hard to resist. Sometimes they're used wittily, as in the case of "The Beat Goes On," which becomes a vehicle for tracking Cher's progress in Hollywood through the 1980s. Several others, as staged by Christopher Gattelli, look like PG-13-rated versions of Broadway Bares; clearly, a small portion of the costume budget was spent on shirts for the men in the chorus. Then again, arguably the biggest hand of the evening goes to "Dark Lady," which showcases the sensational dancing of Angel Reda and Taurean Everett. If Jason Moore's direction doesn't impose much order on this hodgepodge of scenes and songs, at least he has kept the tone light and lively. The Cher Show will undoubtedly please her devotees -- although, since she is still touring, they have the opportunity to catch the real thing -- but musical-theatre fans are likely to notice that these bio-musicals are increasingly looking like clones of one other. Who's up next? Melanie? Carly Simon? Madonna? Cardi B? Don't think the day isn't coming. -- David Barbour

(10 December 2018)

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