If you grew up on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour in the mid-’70s you probably also remember a high-rotation television ad for a show that leapt from Broadway to the rest of the country, promising in its tagline: “Not the Beatles, but an incredible simulation.” It is not coincidental that Beatlemania arrived at a time when margarine was thought to be better for you than butter, polyester preferable to cotton, Astroturf superior to grass. (I am just now beginning to wonder if my entire childhood wasn’t a simulation and, if so: of what?) Ignoring the warnings of critics, fans bereft by the real band’s 1970 breakup flocked to see this faux four, making the show a long-lived hit.
Into the jukebox musical tent pitched by Beatlemania, and since populated by pop stars from Frankie Valli to Gloria Estefan, comes The Cher Show. Like the era that first gave us Cher, this show too can boast of incredible simulation. Credit for that goes largely to its star, Tony nominee Stephanie J. Block, a charismatic stage presence in her own right who is here a careful mimic of Cher’s deep contralto, distinctive speaking voice, and signature gestures. (The mid-song lip-lick and hair toss is used judiciously, lest her portrayal drift into a drag act.) But where the Beatles imploded before Beatlemania, we now have both The Cher Show and also… Cher.
If you love Cher there is probably nothing I could write here that would keep you away from The Cher Show. No discussion of thin plotting, of costumes changes subbing for character development, or of retro har-har jokes will dissuade true believers looking for a bedazzled good time. Except perhaps this: Why not go see Real Cher who, at 72, looks and sounds at least as much like her younger self as Block does? As in The Cher Show, Real Cher, who recently announced a 2019 tour, still wears Bob Mackie sparklers, performs hit singles spanning six decades, and offers her brand of honey-dipped barbed banter that has made her a welcome voice on Twitter. (Asked if she isn’t too old to continue in this line of work, Real Cher quips online while Block’s Cher quips on-stage: “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask Mick Jagger?”)
Do we need another Cher? Do we need three of them? Real Cher and the other producers of The Cher Show think we do. So now New York’s Neil Simon Theatre boasts a trio of semi-fictionalized incarnations: the fur-vested teenager called “Babe” (Micaela Diamond, in her Broadway debut); the slinky wife and TV variety host called “Lady” (Wicked veteran Teal Wicks); and the confident thong-on-a-Navy-ship “Star,” (the magnetic Block who, it is worth noting, got her break portraying Liza Minnelli inThe Boy From Oz). Diamond doesn’t much resemble Cher but captures her noodle-y presence and big-eyed outlook. Wicks, whose “Lady” character scenes reasonably could have been divvied between the other two actresses, ably delivers jokes and eyerolls alongside Sonny Bono (a relaxed Jarrod Spector who has previously embodied songwriter Barry Mann in Beautiful, the Carole King musical, and Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys).
The three actresses, one diva structure is sure to invite comparison to Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. But the therapeutic way these three ages of Cher interact with one another — girlish hopes meeting a veteran’s hindsight — has more in common with another show from last season, Three Tall Women, if the play about a woman’s trifurcated life were written by spiritual guru Marianne Williamson instead of Edward Albee.
The story should be familiar to her fans or, frankly, to anyone whose dentist stocks PEOPLE magazine and enforces regular cleanings. Raised by a practical and profane single mom, Cher leaves home at 16 and soon meets Sonny Bono. After she proves her pipes singing backup for Phil Spector, she and Bono head to London and, following a string of hits including “I Got You Babe” (still a delightful song), the hippie sweethearts become stars of a TV variety show. The feel and look of each incarnation of that show is faithfully recreated, down to designer Bob Mackie’s strategic deployment of extremely minimal fabric.
Mackie, Cher’s collaborator for 50 years, deserves special mention. Has there ever been a Broadway production in which the show’s costume designer is also a singing, dancing character in the cast? (Mackie is portrayed with controlled effervescence by Michael Berresse.) He’s recreated dozens of looks for a show-stopping fashion parade reminiscent of the “Beautiful Girl” sequence in Singing in the Rain. Showing them all off is a job too big for even our three Chers; every woman in the ensemble gets a spin in Cher-wear. Still more of his befeathered, besequinned and befringed creations are wheeled in on racks to frame the action, frequently enough that Mackie might have deserved a set design credit as well. (In fact the television-city-meets-Vegas sets are by Christine Jones and Brett Banakis, the former a Tony winner for Harry Potter.)
But where the costumes are stitch-for-stich accurate, the story necessarily takes some liberties. Staged by director Jason Moore (Avenue Q) as a revue in which Star Cher “turns back time,” this telling of her life asks us to imagine that the song “Half Breed” — which Real Cher memorably performed wearing a spangled bikini and war bonnet while astride a white horse — once was sung to her by her empowering mama, Georgia Holt, when young Cher’s classmates teased her for being half-Armenian.
The career highs (an Oscar!) and lows (an infomercial!) are all here. So are her most significant relationships: Sonny Bono, Gregg Allman and… Rob Camilletti? Oh, right, the former Queens bagel baker who appeared in her “I Found Someone” video. If you had forgotten about Camilletti, she had not — this was a bigger heartbreak than the tabloid story of their 17-year age difference let on. But his presence feels narratively random: One can imagine book writer, Rick Elise (Jersey Boys) attempting to omit this third romance, and Cher pleading the case for its personal significance.
Among the few moments of authentic emotion comes when her first marriage collapses and the Chers deliver a raw interpretation of the Bono-penned 1966 hit “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” But then, inexplicably, there is a fantasy duet between Bono and Cher’s second husband Gregg Allman (played by Matthew Hydzik and a silken blonde wig). That surreal number is accompanied by one female and several male dancers executing woman-tossing moves that Deney Terrio used to introduce weekly on “Dance Fever.” The skill on display is impressive, but to what end here? (The choreographer is Christopher Gattelli, who meets the task of reproducing moves of 1960s teens on Top of the Pops to video vixens, male and female, of the ’90s and beyond.)
If The Cher Show has its intended effect, the more meaningful dancing will be by the audience at their seats, during the rousing finale of “Believe.” But before we can get to that, there is an awful lot of talk among the three Chers about facing her (their?) fears, something Real Cher has evidently struggled with and triumphed over. At this moment The Cher Show feels less like storytelling than like the pop goddess staging her therapy sessions. Other times it seems like her Wikipedia page set to music. What it rarely achieves is becoming a fully realized evening of theater. But it is, in the tradition of the American jukebox musical, a fair simulation. B