February 2, 2019

"The Cher Show" on Broadway

I see a lot of shows, and many are great, others are only so-so, but I seldom write reviews on any of them. But last weekend, I saw "The Cher Show" on Broadway (its currently playing at the Neil Simon Theatre on West 52nd Street in New York).

The play is a jukebox musical biopic story about the diva in the title. The woman born as Cherilyn Sarkisian from El Centro, California, a border town in the Imperial Valley, but is much better known by the mononymous (and abbreviated) name Cher. More than a few of such jukebox musical shows have made their mark on the big white way in recent years about Carole King, Frankie Valli, Billy Joel, Gloria Estefan, Donna Summer and even Janis Joplin to name a few. Most were enjoyable for what they were, but were mostly formula-driven musical bios that followed a boring, chronological storylines (only Summer broke from that sequence) with the music shoe-horned into the story.

Being a longtime Cher fan anyway (I'm old enough to have grown up watching the original weekly TV variety show broadcast live with the Bonos and their first child, who is exactly my age -- born just a few weeks before me), the subsequent solo Cher variety show, and the duo's short-lived, post-divorce return to television variety as an on-screen couple, even if she was already married to Gregg Allman at the time (Mr. Allman died back in 2017, but Cher did not give the eulogy at his funeral as she did at Sonny Bono's in 1998), so "The Cher Show" wasn't really a difficult sell for me, yet I still went into it with low expectations given my disappointment with so many others in this theater genre so far. The genre is more like a Beatlemania performance, rather than a story like The Miracle Worker about Helen Keller.

Anyway, on that front, I was very pleasantly surprised with "The Cher Show". Sure, the jukebox biopic genre is still more about filling theater seats daily with tourists than about boundary-pushing stories or performances. But "The Cher Show" did a few things differently which I really enjoyed.

The non-linear story telling (and the music that accompanied it) was in my opinion, very refreshing, and it also wasn't a reminder that I'll be a half-century old this year (or that Cher herself will be 72). Its accomplished with three different actresses playing Cher at different points of her life, named Babe, Lady and Star respectively, yet they interact with one another throughout the show, sometimes rather humorously. Although the actresses were good at mimicking her smoky, contralto voice, I don't envision Patti Lupone is worried any of the actresses are ready to unseat her for acting just yet. They were all great singers, but they did what they could for the role they were cast; and none can ever be Cher herself.

Cher's direct, personal involvement as the producer of "The Cher Show" as well the direct involvement of her long-time friend and costume designer Bob Mackie, who has won multiple Emmy Awards of his own, both really give the show its unique edge. The show's director Jason Moore said this way: "You can't really tell the Cher story without telling the Bob Mackie part of it".

Bob Mackie's sequin-studded, feathered "nude" dress that Cher wore to the 1974 Met Gala.
Bob Mackie spoke fondly of his relationship with Cher, whom he met as a guest on "The Carol Burnett Show". He said "To be cute and pretty back then, you had to have a turned-up nose and lots of blond hair. But Cher is an amazing-looking girl. She can look like anything. She loved getting dressed up, and nothing intimidated her. By the end, people were turning on the show just to see what she was going to wear." Colors were bold, sequins were plentiful, coverage was minimal.

"Almost nothing he [Bob Mackie] ever made me did I hate," Cher said. "The minute I started getting beads, I didn't care what happened."

One of her most iconic singles was not her 2017 smash "Believe", which became the bestselling song of her musical career, but was her breakout 1971 solo single "Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves" from a performance that was given on their Sonny & Cher variety show performed around the same period of time (in the days before music videos existed). A clip of that can be listened to below (fast forward to the second track), or by visiting https://archive.org/details/cd_gypsys-tramps-thieves_cher:

 "The Cher Show" features an impressive re-interpretation of so many of her iconic Bob Mackie costumes (reportedly over 600 costumes), which are changed with a rapid frequency that's definitely a testament to the actresses who play the 3 different Chers.

Bob Mackie himself deserves much of the credit for his role in "The Cher Show"; he is the sole costume designer for the show. He says he had the original designs and sketches for most of her original costumes, which made it less of a new creative endeavor and more of a production assignment for the show, although there were some notable modifications. Many of the original costumes that Cher wore were reportedly incredibly heavy and fragile, she reportedly tripped wearing one to the accept the Oscar that she won, dropping an earing on the way up to the podium), including the different headpieces, so Mr. Mackie creatively modified the originals for "The Cher Show", making them much lighter-weight, yet still as radiant as the originals, and also durable enough to survive the rapid pace costume changes in the show. Both Cher and Bob Mackie deserve rightful credit for their roles in bringing "The Cher Show" on Broadway to fruition and making it work.

Cher's involvement also ensured that audiences of the show don't forget her journey to becoming not only a pop star first by going to London with Sonny Bono (the show also features an appearance by someone playing legendary American sixties musical producer Phil Spector who's now in jail for murdering his wife) to becoming an Oscar-winner, or even her humiliating infomercial period (which was hilariously lampooned on SNL, as well as on "In Living Color" which was one of the Fox broacasting network's earliest successes after "The Simpsons") or Cher's much-chronicled love-life, the subject of tabloid fodder for as long as I've been alive, isn't a central focus. Although a few of her most memorable romances (including her two husbands, and her affair with "bagel boy" Rob Camilletti who was 22 years her junior when she was living in New York to pursue a stage career) have roles, its but difficult to fit so many romances into a short biopic and its not supposed to be about her colorful love-life anyway. The show even humorously acknowledges Cher's many farewell shows.

But Cher's two children are barely acknowledged in the except as a decoration, and they use baby dolls rather than actors to fill those roles. To her credit, her oldest child is referred to as Chaz throughout the show, although as noted, her kids are hardly mentioned. The important thing to remember is: this is "The Cher Show", not the Sonny & Cher Show, the Cher and Gregg Allman Show, the Cher and Bagel Boy Show, or the Cher and her Kids Show. They are all acknowledged, but the show isn't really about any them. Perhaps that's more to respect her children's privacy than it is about ignoring them. Chaz Bono, for example, went through a painful period of gender dysphoria growing up before ultimately transitioning to become male. While Cher wasn't initially thrilled, mainly because she wasn't confided in until the decision had already been made by Chaz, she ultimately helped her child with the transition and has since willingly embraced the slightly-modified name (which went from Chastity to Chaz) that was ultimately chosen.

Although her own children are played by baby dolls in "The Cher Show", her mother plays a very significant role in "The Cher Show". Her father, John Sarkisian, on the other hand, was absent, which is largely as Cher remembered him growing up. By the time her mother Georgia Holt learned she was pregnant with Cher, she had already left Mr. Sarkisian. Cher spent very little time with her father growing up, whom she says had a gambling and heroin habit. Cher had a series of stepfathers growing up — her mother was married a total of eight times, to six different men. And yet, her mother is depicted in a way that glosses over her own many relationship failures to make her appear wise instead. Cher claims its because she mostly watched her mother survive alone.

There are even a few funny cameos in the show by the likes of an actress that portrays the late Lucille Ball who Cher says actually gave her advice as a young woman about not letting a husband run her life or her career (Lucy was spoke from her own experience).

On the musical score, most are familiar with Cher's long discography (the show includes 35 of her songs), but her willingness to abandon linear sequence of her music was a refreshing surprise which deserves acknowledgement. We start early with "All I Really Want to Do", but end up at the auto-tuned "Believe" just a few minutes later. At the same time, they had to cut things to keep the length of the show right, and the biggest omission on the musical score is the complete exclusion of Cher's duration with Casablanca Records which includes such numbers as "Hell On Wheels" that was big during the roller-disco era of the late-seventies into the early-eighties. Admittedly, her Casablanca period didn't produce any of the platinum-selling singles that her late 1990's dance tracks did, yet was still a relevant part of her lengthy yet successful musical career. Perhaps its not a critical omission, but an omission nonetheless that could have been colorful and funny.

Like all jukebox musicals, "The Cher Show" has an expiration date. People are unlikely to be watching this in another 50 years, just as no one will likely be watching shows about Billy Joel or Gloria Estefan because they are pop culture celebrities of today. It won't matter since its based on pop culture of yesterday and today, not tomorrow.

No matter, in all, I would still give "The Cher Show" two thumbs up. Its enjoyable without taking itself too seriously. The actresses that perform her are great singers, and she's still willing to be the butt of a joke that made her early TV variety hows such big hits. Its not perfect, but there's a lot to like about "The Cher Show" and was a lot more enjoyable than some others in this same genre. The costumes are great, as is the music, and its funny enough without being too serious.

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