Review: In ‘The Cher Show,’ I Got You, Babe. And You. And You.
There’s a fine line between tacky and spectacular. In creating costumes for Cher over the years — costumes that often tell the story of a shy woman emerging triumphant from a chrysalis — the designer Bob Mackie has kept on the right side of the line by making sure the level of craft supports the extravagance of the gesture.
Sadly that’s not the case with “The Cher Show,” the maddening mishmash of a new musical that opened on Monday at the Neil Simon Theater. Except for the dozens of eye-popping outfits Mr. Mackie gorgeously recreates for the occasion, it’s all gesture, no craft: dramatically threadbare and surprisingly unrevealing.
That’s too bad because, reading between the paillettes, you get the feeling that the 72-year-old singer-actress-survivor is a good egg: self-mocking, plain speaking and a hoot. Whether that’s enough to build a Broadway musical on is another question, one “The Cher Show,” striving to be agreeable, never gets close to answering.
Rather, its energies are waylaid in trying to solve the puzzle of its own concept, of which weird vestiges remain after a tryout in Chicago. The plan was to explore Cher’s life in the form of a television variety show like the ones she starred in — with or without her first husband, Sonny Bono — between 1971 and 1977.
That doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me, but there’s no way to know. In its current state, you can’t distinguish scenes meant to borrow comedy-hour elements from those meant to be taken at face value. Cher’s difficult marriage to the Nashville-born rock musician Gregg Allman is covered in a ludicrous saloon sketch interspersed with bad jokes. Cher to Allman: “Are you from Tennessee, ’cause you’re the only 10 I see.”
And back story is handled with the subtlety of a backhoe. You can almost hear a groan on the laugh track when, later in the show, Cher asks Sonny’s ghost, “Are you really dead?”
Complicating matters is the decision to confine such an unconventional figure as Cher in the straitjacket of the biographical jukebox musical — particularly the tripartite diva subgenus most recently botched by “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.” We need not rehearse the traps inherent in the genre, except to say that “The Cher Show” falls into all of them. It wastes so much time hammering its biographical bullet points and tunestack into place, despite logic or chronology, that it never seems to notice the unintelligible result.
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Anyway, unless you are Edward Albee, that three-ages-of-woman gimmick is subtractive, not additive. In giving us a kaleidoscope of Cher avatars called Babe, Lady and Star, the book writer Rick Elice, who also scripted “Jersey Boys,” creates three one-note characters from what might have been a single rich one. Babe, the “sweetheart” spirit of Cher in her teens and early 20s (Micaela Diamond), and Lady, the “smart-mouth” Cher of the next few years (Teal Wicks), are especially flat, as is usually true of innocents being crushed by forces they don’t yet understand.
It’s only with Star — the “bad-ass,” mature Cher — that we get a character who rewards our attention. She also rewards the efforts of the fine singing actress Stephanie J. Block; once Ms. Block takes over it feels as if Star has swallowed Babe and Lady whole. Not only does she ace Cher’s vocal inflections and physical mannerisms, including the half-mast eyes, the arm akimbo and the dancing-from-the-hair-up hauteur, but she somehow integrates them into a portrait of a woman at odds with the very dream that sustained her.
The dream, of course, was stardom, and “The Cher Show” does not seem to know what it thinks about that. Growing up poor, outcast and painfully shy, little Cherilyn Sarkisian nevertheless clung to her mother’s mantra: “The song will make you strong.” We see no evidence of this, especially during the years when most of her songs were written by Sonny, the annoying pipsqueak who also cut her out of the ownership of their mutual endeavors.
The effort of husbands, directors and network executives to control and profit from Cher is a powerful and timely subject that the book keeps raising then dropping, or turning into jokes. (It’s perhaps worth noting that Cher is one of the show’s above-the-title producers.) Though Jarrod Spector gets Sonny’s Napoleon complex just right, he also gives him an adenoidal honk so exaggerated as to render him cute and harmless.
Even so, the book hedges. “Are we making Sonny seem too horrible?” Babe asks. “’Cause I don’t wanna do that.”
Why not? Must a musical intended for popular consumption defang the anger of its powerful subject and, in doing so, whitewash her most interesting problems? A scene in which Cher, who’s dyslexic, struggles to read an audition script for a Broadway play is well handled by Ms. Block, but omits the fact that the resulting production was an infamous flop.
Nor is a word said about her initial difficulty accepting her son Chaz’s coming out as trans — a conflict that might have given some dramatic shape to the Star years. As depicted here, those years consist of little but farewell tours.
At least the musical numbers are gleefully staged; the director Jason Moore and the choreographer Christopher Gattelli keep the super-buff ensemble whirling constantly on pop pastel sets under sparkly lights. The songs are beautifully arranged by Daryl Waters and sung better by the three lead women (and by Emily Skinner, in the thankless role of Cher’s mother) than Cher usually did. In any case, they will surely satisfy die-hard fans.
For occasional admirers, though, they will more likely mystify, having only the most notional connection to the story. Cher’s 1989 comeback hit, “If I Could Turn Back Time,” is grabbed as the opening solely because of its title; her entire movie career is crammed into a version of “The Beat Goes On” with new lyrics like “There’s Mike Nichols standing at the door!”
This is where the jukebox problem and the star-splitting problem converge with the craft problem. With too many character arcs and agendas to serve — three Chers, several careers, 35 songs or parts thereof — the show’s creators can serve none well.
And yet despite its total ham-handedness, “The Cher Show” is not as unpleasant as slicker jukebox musicals that valorize thugs or bulldoze the audience. Yes, it argues way too hard for Cher’s significance — a significance it would be better off merely assuming and then complicating. And yes, it gets whiny just when you want it to get fierce.
But it’s not cynical. It even has moments in which, like Cher herself, it’s strong enough to tease its own conventions. At one point, Star crows to Babe and Lady, “It’s so much easier to talk to myself when I’m all here.”
The solid laugh Ms. Block gets from that line should have been a clue. However gorgeously attired, a biomusical divided against itself cannot stand.
The Cher Show
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