REVIEW: “The Cher Show” on Broadway delivers what it needs to, bitches

REVIEW: “The Cher Show” on Broadway delivers what it needs to, bitches

 
 

Okay. “Let’s do this, bitches!”

A popular aphorism muses that following nuclear holocaust the only survivors will be cockroaches and Cher.  As the sole artist to have a number-one single on a Billboard chart in six consecutive decades, Cher is a mononymous titan of American music and culture, a fashion icon and “goddam goddess warrior” with a peerless number of comebacks and farewell tours under her sequin-studded belt.

The new jukebox musical aptly named “The Cher Show”, which opened tonight at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway, is a lively tribute produced by this living legend—one that delivers exactly what it needs to: the music, the vocals, the fashions, the hair, the camp, and the story of how one supremely talented woman was strong enough to endure and rightfully earn her status at the center of American culture for over fifty years.

When thinking about a commodity musical based upon beloved and well-known existing material, it helps to see it as a sort of pact or bargain between the show and its audience to supply what people want with enough craft, pizzazz, and heart to justify the ticket price.  By this measure, admittedly a curve, “The Cher Show” easily upholds its end of the bargain.

Under the swift direction of Jason Moore (“Avenue Q”) with largely serviceable choreography by Christopher Gattelli (“Newsies”, “SpongeBob SquarePants”) and an adroitly structured and self-aware book by Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys”, “Peter and the Starcatcher”), the show signals exactly what it is from its opening moments as Cher the “star”, played by Stephanie J. Block (“Falsettos”, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”), rises from a trapdoor centerstage singing her iconic 1989 anthem, “If I Could Turn Back Time”.

That decision instantly gratifies the audience, both inviting enthusiasm and allaying skeptical fears.  The crucial dialogue that follows sets the tone for the balance of the evening, self-referentially kitschy and definitely not self-serious, as Cher the “star” introduces Cher the “lady” (Teal Wicks, “Finding Neverland”, “Wicked”) and Cher the “babe” (Micaela Diamond, Broadway debut), who (forgive me) share the role at varying ages. 

 
 Teal Wicks, Stephanie J. Block, and Micaela Diamond as Cher. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.

Teal Wicks, Stephanie J. Block, and Micaela Diamond as Cher. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.

 

Yes, another bio-musical about a pop diva with three actresses playing the titular part—paging Donna Summer—however, this time, it works.  That’s because the star, the lady, and the babe remain in constant conversation throughout the show, supporting and advising one another, slipping in and out of the story, and revealing the interior journey of a world famous person we think we know well.  Despite Cher the artist’s many roles and revealing reinventions on stage (literally), Cher the woman has always been a little shy, aloof, and private off stage. 

Glitz notwithstanding, and there is plenty of it (remember: the bargain is upheld), that quiet and unassuming woman remains at the center of the story—itself styled like a television variety show of yore—alongside her pip of a mother, Georgia Holt (Emily Skinner, “Side Show”), and the most important men in her life: husband and ersatz Svengali Sonny Bono (Jarrod Spector, a dead-ringer, “Jersey Boys”, “Beautiful”), second husband Gregg Allman (Matthew Hydzik), short-lived bagel-baking boyfriend Rob Camilletti (Michael Campayno), and legendary costume designer Bob Mackie (Michael Berresse, “A Chorus Line”, “The Light in the Piazza”). 

Noticeably absent from the list is her transgender son, Chaz.  As mentioned, “The Cher Show” is produced by Cher herself, so some subjects, like Chaz, are just off-limits, while others, namely her three big relationships, are thinly explored beyond their important plot points.  Depth is not a virtue of “The Cher Show”.  Still, as the FAQ on the website states in response to the question “is this a Cher Show?”: “girl, this is ‘The Cher Show’” (emphasis added).

Following Cher from childhood to immortal celebrity, every important song in her catalogue gets its moment with a smart musical plot that saves a body-vibrating, burst of electronic pop nirvana until the very end.  Excellent orchestrations and dance arrangements by Daryl Waters and Zane Mark both pay homage to and re-imagine classics and contemporary cuts alike.  “Dark Lady”, a number one hit from 1974 used here as an act two, show-stopping dance number, features a fourth, dancing Cher (Ashley Blair Fitzgerald), and is just one thrilling example of several.

 
 Stephanie J. Block as Cher “the star”. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.

Stephanie J. Block as Cher “the star”. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.

 

As Cher the “star”, Stephanie J. Block is giving a career-high performance that is equal parts spot-on impersonation and sheer embodiment.  There are moments during the show where you have to tell yourself to “snap out of it” and remember that you’re not actually watching Cher on stage.  Yes, she’s that good—nailing the deep speaking voice, unmistakable body language, and gloriously rich and vibratoed alto vocals that define Cher.  The lady and the babe are fine, but Ms. Block is the star.

While I frequently found the moving half-moon-shaped, Las Vegas light-wall set by Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis, and monochromatic color-wash lighting by Kevin Adams, quite ugly to look at, every other scene or so, they’d subtly shift in such a way as to create an entire setting with the appropriate touch of glamour or backstage mystique.  And then there are the costumes, designed by no less than Bob Mackie himself. 

In another example of upholding that bargain, every iconic look of Cher’s through the decades is faithfully recreated, even if only for a glimpse (bless those dressers backstage), along with a mini-runway show halfway through act one to showcase some more daring designs of Mackie’s—because why not?  The Cher-inspired mantra of this production is clearly “more is more”.  Not every musical gets entrance applause for costumes; I lost count at this one.

Whether we care to admit or not, so much of life, and arts criticism for that matter, is about expectations.  For a shamelessly money-grubbing genre of musical theatre that jumped the shark at least a couple seasons ago, “The Cher Show” is refreshingly well-done.  It never tries to be anything it is not, wholly owning its own wry silliness and decadent camp while still honoring the pop legend whose story it quite legibly tells, and remaining blissfully entertaining from start to finish. 

Cher, now 72, is having a breathtakingly triumphant 2018, continuing her Las Vegas residency, returning to the silver screen in “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”, releasing her twenty-sixth studio album “Dancing Queen” (appropriately enough, covers of ABBA songs), embarking on her seventh solo concert tour around the world, and earning the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement just yesterday. 

Tonight, she opened a Broadway show.  I suspect my fellow critics won’t be liberal with praise, but as her life and career demonstrate, it is never a good idea to underestimate Cher.  She challenged her younger pop peers to “follow this, you bitches!” almost a decade ago, and while many of them have faded away, she’s still on top.  I believe “The Cher Show” will be around for a while.

Bottom Line: “The Cher Show”, a new bio-musical, never tries to be anything it is not, wholly owning its own wry silliness and decadent camp while honoring the pop legend whose story it quite legibly tells, and remaining blissfully entertaining.  The show delivers exactly what it needs to—from songs to sequins—the costumes get entrance applause, and Stephanie J. Block embodies Cher in a career-high performance.  Capturing the self-effacing spirit and pizzazz of its pop diva, “The Cher Show” is aptly titled.

_______________
The Cher Show
Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street
New York, NY  10019

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: December 3, 2018
Discount Tickets

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