Breaking the Band
Cher Sings Fernando (and Carousel Man)

The Cher Show Hits Chicago

Robbie-chicago-showThe prospect of a Cher Broadway show has never much filled my heart with glee. I think this is because Cher's not in it, which always takes the rest of pop culture in the universe down a notch for me. So talking about it last year felt kind of obligatory. But now that I've read about the actual details of the show, I feel a sense of new excitement about it. Because this is scholarship in action. This show is trying to make meaning of her life story. This isn't The Beat Goes On movie, part deux. Broadway artists are working on strategies to try to conceptualize Cher, structurally in a story and aesthetically with visuals and sounds. It's a cool thing for a Cher nerd after all.

The show opened a few weeks ago and there haven't been many reviews, mostly because this is a soft opening to a work in progress. A try out. Some Chicago papers have been doing feature stories on the show, like the Chicago Sun Times. Some interesting excerpts:

"...producer Jeffrey Seller, who is also the producer of “Hamilton” (playing a few blocks away at the CIBC Theatre), which tells the tale of, well, another iconic American. 'Who ever thought you could put Hamilton and Cher in the same sentence,' Seller said amid hearty laughter. 'America would not be the same were it not for Alexander Hamilton and Cher. And that is inarguably true. … People who are tenacious often are people who change the world. Alexander Hamilton unquestionably changed the world, and I think Cher, over the past 50-plus years, has absolutely changed the world"

Cast"'The idea of presenting Cher as a girl group was fascinating to me as a writer,' Elice said. 'You could have one of them argue with the other two, take sides against someone else, show how the three of them could support each other and evolve together over the course of the show. So, it’s not the cinema’s solution of here’s the young one, here’s the middle one, here’s the old one. They’re on all the time together so that we see sort of a refracted image of a personality onstage, which struck me as being a great way into a life that is so varied.'”

“'[The young ‘Babe’ Cher] is fearless but yet vulnerable and optimistic,' Block said of Elice’s unique character concept. '[Midlife ‘Star’ Cher] is confidence and poise. And I’m [as Lady] the wisdom of it all. I think the audience will really be taken aback that it’s not the young one who passes the torch to Lady who passes the torch to Star. We kind of liken it to a Russian nesting doll: There is the one doll, and then you open up and there’s the second and then the third. But yet when you put them all together it makes a complete Cher. And we’re hoping the audience really grasps and takes a hold of that because it’s not only theatrical but it’s very special and moving. … It’s this gorgeous, theatrical Cher therapy session.'”

There have also been interesting articles about the cast (ew.com and Playbill and CBS Local), the promo, Ru Paul's Drag Race put on an unauthorized Cher Rusical that was very smart and politically aware. Carol Burnett attended the opening show to support Bob Mackie.  We saw behind the scenes photos. 

I haven’t seen many official reviews yet (see one at the end of this article) but both Cher fans and theater fans have written some very good commentary on the show’s highlights and drawbacks.

Because these is long, I'm creating a post break for you.

Thanks to Dishy for alerting me to the Cher Show comment board. I’m really fascinated by these comments and so I’m going to quote a lot of reviewers here. Because The Cher Show is basically Cher scholarship and framing, audience response is important. So I’ve consolidated some salient points as the audiences have digested the show:

Bwayfan292 wrote: “I’m wishing this is gonna turn out good. We can’t afford anymore horrible Jukebox musicals.”

Marlothom Intermission wrote: “I can’t help feeling like this is what “Summer” [the Donna Summer musical] was supposed to be like. Much more thought out ...The Bob Mackey [sic] number was a showstopper (I wanted to stand).”

RevolutionaryCostume wrote: “Huge production budget, costumes are everything and more. Big Mackie fashion show in act one stopped the show for applause. Lots of fourth wall breaking...all three Chers comment on the action...Big solo for...Superstar.” [See Cher's "Superstar" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pFeG6IV_aE]

JeaniusIsMe wrote: “not a cher fan particularly...Is it a great show? No, but with some tweaks it could be a good show...The Mackey costumes are just spectacular to see (there’s a number that is essentially a Mackey fashion show and it stops the show in Act One)...Outside of Sonny, the major male roles are all split between Berresse (Altman/Mackie), Hydzik (Allman/John Southall), and Campayno (Rob Camilletti)...The three Cher set-up works, and they lean into the meta commentary/fourth wall breaking aspect of it. Block and Wicks are incredible (Block absolutely brought the house down with Do You Believe in Life After Love in act two- it’s an amazing arrangement and performance of the song. I am legitimately worried their voices won’t hold up with all they are asked to do. Micaela Diamond does a great job with the younger Cher side of things...The Sonny and Cher sections of the show are stronger that the rest, and I didn’t love that they kept bringing in the framing device (a Cher TV retrospective special) to break up the story. We don’t need it for all the transitions, it’s easy enough to follow the story. Act two felt less connected than one, but the amount of talent in the cast smoothed over most bumps...And, as was mentioned, you can see how much money was thrown at the show. It has to be insanely expensive. Frankly, I went in with really low expectations and was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I’m likely not their target audience (30 something woman with no real attachment to Cher), but it won me over. I’m gonna try and get back to see it later in the run to see if it was tightened a bit.”

Ravenclaw wrote:  “The show was strikingly fun, original, and has the makings of a hit. However, in its current state (at just shy of three hours) it is too long and unfocused to really cohere in a satisfying way. But all the events are in there. The show has two framing concepts. The first is that they are rehearsing a Cher career retrospective, and Cher is re-experiencing moments of her life as they play out in front of her again. The other framing device is basically Three Tall Women. The three Cher’s talk to each other and sometimes step into each other’s stories and take over for each other when they need to. The rules of the first device are unclear and made for some confusing storytelling moments. The second device is exciting and theatrical. The show has a lot of “and then this happened. And then this happened. And then this happened,” so while it is very fast-paced, there isn’t a clear through-line driving you through the show, so the ending (shortly after Sonny’s death) feels a little arbitrary. Some highlights were The Beat Goes On, which uses a monologue interspersed in a very “Roxie”-like sequence following her achievements in film, and Dark Lady, which sees Sonny and Gregg Allman voicing their jealousy while the ensemble dances a terrific tango. The show is really trying to do something original in its book and not play it safe. It is so successful in terms of form, but it’s unclear what their angle is on the story right now. Some cuts and focusing will really help that, but it’s a blast and the audience loved it so much.”

Marlothom wrote: “I loved the use of costume racks as part of the set in Act 1....I suspect some tourist will wonder why no one is doing "the Cher voice" (I heard it from someone during intermission).  I will be honest that as great as Teal Wicks is as "Lady" Cher, she looks nothing like her and is too short for all of the jokes that are made about her being taller than Sonny. I also wish Stephanie's Cher was a tad older and had bigger hair.  I really enjoyed Jarrod Spector and Emily Skinner in their supporting roles and hope they are recognized during awards season.“

Menken Fan wrote: “When her Laverne costume appeared briefly during the "My Strongest Suit"-like, Mackie fashion show, the audience went crazy, and I wanted to see a bit of that hysterical character. Maybe a couple of iconic movie scenes, instead of just mentioning some of the movies in the "Roxie"-like number. Being a theatre fan, I was disappointed that they had a scene of Robert Altman convincing Cher to be in his Broadway show, but never mentioned the title or anything about it, and then Cher just kind of says 'I did that, but now I'm done with Broadway'. Oh, and what's up with Lucille Ball showing up for a few minutes? Also, it's a bit strange that the story ends about 20 years ago, before her major resurgence as a concert artist.  And nothing about her famous tweeting...Hoping for some meaningful tweaks. This could be really good.”

whatdoesntkillme wrote: “There should be more emphasis on how she got to where she got, and not just the checkpoints of her life. The framing device(s) is/are confusing, especially with SJB Cher not really having a large dedicated chunk to herself but rather interspersing herself throughout the other two (mainly Wicks'). Everyone is working very hard--lots of ensemble dancing and production numbers, and the performances seemed very polished...Quite a few tech issues to work out: walls that creak when they move, silent blackout transitions, upstage transitions visible, live feed camera lag, etc. But I'm excited to see what this turns into. SJB is incredible. The whole cast is incredible. The production has spent so much money--some elaborate costumes are only seen for 5 seconds, there are so many lights around the set. You can tell that Rick Elice wrote the book--he uses some similar plot devices to Jersey Boys, like teasing the audience with an alternate version of the signature song at the beginning of the show. Overall, I had a great time. The audience was filled with Cher devotees who don't know how to behave at the theatre. [CS bold] Lots of singing along and photos/videos taken. Ugh.”

[Cher fans, Mr. Cher Scholar thinks this is fine but I think people need to be aware more of their surroundings and be respectful of another audience’s theater and etiquette conventions.]

Eleonora Duse wrote an amazing review which I included in its entirety further down. Earlier in the thread, she thoughtfully typed out the song list from the program (see below): “Part of the "fun" of attending a jukebox musical is to see how the creators have shoe-horned well-known songs into the plot-line. ...A DREAM IS A WISH YOUR HEART MAKES (the plot indulges heavily in fairy-tale elements, with Babe Cher/Cinderella slaving away at her sewing machine dreaming of a better future; Star Cher, dressed in a yellow gown that is clearly intended to enhance her Fairy Godmother function, consoles Babe Cher and encourages her to dream BIG and also reprises the song towards the end of the show).

 Her list:

  1. AFTER ALL (as a duet between Lady Cher and Sonny; it was a bit jarring because the actor playing Sonny, while really good at imitating Sonny's vocal stylings on songs Sonny actually recorded, was less convincing when called on to interpret songs that weren't in his catalogue).
  2. AIN'T NOBODY'S BUSINESS IF I DO
  3. ALL OR NOTHING (I have no recall of this song; maybe it was cut?)
  4. ALL I REALLY WANT TO DO (the Bob Dylan song)
  5. BABY DON'T GO (no recall)
  6. BE MY BABY (Phil Spector is featured in a scene where Babe Cher replaces a missing Darlene Love as a back-up singer; the actor who plays Phil Spector is not identified in the cast credits)
  7. A COWBOY'S WORK IS NEVER DONE
  8. DA DOO RON RON
  9. HEART OF STONE (no clear recall of this in the show; maybe it was cut -- also possible that there was just a snippet:  not all of the songs receive full blown performances)
  10. I HOPE YOU FIND IT
  11. I LIKE IT LIKE THAT  (performed by a boy band, presumably the Dick Clark Five, during Sonny and Cher's trip to the U.K.)
  12. LITTLE MAN (no recall)
  13. LIVING IN A HOUSE DIVIDED
  14. RAMBLING MAN (no recall)
  15. SATURDAY NIGHT IS THE LONELIEST NIGHT OF THE WEEK (the Jule Styne number, which serves the function of giving a nod to traditional Broadway show tunes and is staged as showy number for the ensemble)
  16. SAVE UP ALL YOUR TEARS (no recall)
  17. STRONG ENOUGH
  18. THE BEAT GOES ON (one of the most effectively staged numbers)  
  19. SHOOP SHOOP SONG
  20. THE WAY OF LOVE (performed as an audition piece for Robert Altman, who asks Cher to ditch attempts at reading from a script in light of her dyslexia and to simply use a song)
  21. VAMP
  22. WE ALL SLEEP ALONE
  23. WHEN THE MONEY'S GONE
  24. YOU BETTER SIT DOWN KIDS (also a bit jarring because it's one of the first of the Sonny & Cher songs that is given to a different character to sing; in this case, the song is performed by Cher's step-dad as he bids farewell to the family)

Cher-brasil-song listCher Brasil also posted a song list (right).

Duse's full review: The problem with The Cher Show is that it purports to be a musical biography of a singular actress-singer-entertainer who is famous for being an embodiment of an archetype: the plain-spoken, earthy, salty-tongued, independent woman.  Someone who glories in the fact that she is different and doesn’t really need a man to define her.

Notwithstanding all that, the narrative drive of The Cher Show is powered by scenes that present Cher’s life as nothing more than a series of scenes that focus attention on the singer’s relationship with men. The show, in fact, ends with a powerful monologue by Stephanie J. Block  in which she recreates the emotional speech Cher delivered at Sonny Bono’s funeral and then proceeds to sing a wonderful rendition of “Believe” that gains depth thanks to the context and Block’s skill as an actress.

But Sonny died in 1998. Twenty years ago.  And it seems like a big contradiction of the underlying premise (Cher as an archetype of the strong woman) to end a show about her life with a scene that is so focused on the final farewell to her former husband. Has Cher done nothing in the past twenty years that merits a dramatic recreation or some form of theatrical sublimation?

Well, in the past twenty years, Cher has had to come to terms with her child’s gender reassignment.  She has also emerged as an outspoken opponent of the Trump administration and a master of social media.  Yet neither of these defining episodes are even alluded to in this production. In fact, although the audience is given a brief glimpse of Cher nursing Elijah Blue, her son with Gregg Allman, Chaz isn’t given a single second of time on the stage nor is his name ever uttered.  Trump is never mentioned. And no allusion is ever made to Sonny’s successful reinvention of himself as a Republican. Given the state of the nation, and Cher’s own positions on this matter, the show could have shown more courage and engaged a sympathetic audience with something that addressed personal responsibility, the role of the artist as citizen, and the fact that even certified gay icons need to overcome obstacles to embracing diversity.

 [These are good points, especially considering Cher’s icon-solidification has happened largely since Sonny’s death. You can comb through concert reviews and note the tone shift on countless interview intros and in commentary about Cher. Her bearing after his death, going through Chaz's transition, how she was perceived by the public, her longevity, an acknowledgement of her personal challenges, whatever the cause: Cher may have been an icon to fans for decades, but she wasn’t an icon to the mass culture until recently.]

 These omissions are odd and undermine the integrity of The Cher Show.  Much of the “book” could have been cut and paste from Wikipedia entries and youtube video clips (spoiler alert: a significant amount of material is taken verbatim from Cher’s eulogy to Sonny, which can be viewed here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fba-YxHIm6c).  

The three actresses playing Cher (listed in the program as Babe Cher, Lady Cher, and Star Cher) do their best to capture various aspects of her personality at different points of her life.  But all three err in one fundamental way: they sing much better than Cher ever did and make a point of showing off their singing skills in ways that Cher never had to. Why? Because Cher had charisma and a unique style that set her apart. The actresses do their best to capture some of the mannerisms that render Cher such an iconic presence, but for long stretches their efforts only serve as a reminder that a myriad of drag queens have done at least as well (in fact, the audience was graced with the presence of several Chers who felt compelled to attend in full Cher-regalia). For that matter, so has Sean Hayes/Jack McFarland.

The real star of this show was Bob Mackie. The show made a point of noting that much of the appeal of The Sonny and Cher Show was in its wardrobe. Like most juke-box musicals, The Cher Show trades in the easy nostalgia that comes from repurposing unforgettable moments from a shared cultural past.  In the case of The Cher Show, there are various points in which a few notes from a famous song elicit sighs of recognition. Part of the “fun” is in trying to guess how the show will shoe-horn in a greatest hit: how will the well-known number advance the plot? At what point will a cherished (pardon the pun) favorite make an appearance? The Playbill does not spoil any surprises:  the musical numbers are not listed in the main body of the program; they appear at the very end, and composer/publishing credits are given in small print. At regular intervals, the audience took delight in recognizing the beginning strains of songs such as “If I Could Turn Back Time” and “The Beat Goes On” and “I’ve Got You Babe,” etc. But an even stronger nostalgic pull was exercised by the Mackie costumes: the audience gave audible sighs of approval each time one of the iconic costumes received its moment in the spotlight. A high-point of the evening was the actual catwalk fashion show in which more than a dozen gowns were prominently showcased. A Tony nomination is inevitable, although one has to wonder whether it’s altogether fair to reward someone for simply showcasing on a Broadway stage gowns that were created for other types of stages all together. Mackie also features prominently in the script and he has more scenes than Gregg Allman.  

The show is long and will inevitably be cut. A prime contender for the cutting floor is a scene involving Lucille Ball. The Playbill did not provide a credit for the actress playing Lucille Ball, but I suspect it was Emily Skinner, who has the thankless role of Cher’s mother, portrayed as an ever supportive avatar. What function does Lucille Ball serves in The Cher Story?  She’s brought in as a way of drawing a parallel to another famous husband-wife entertainment duo whose personal relationship was never as rosy as their professional one: when Cher is wondering whether she can leave Sonny without incurring the wrath of the American people, she seeks advice from Lucille Ball who faced similar concerns when her relationship foundered to the point of making their separation a foregone conclusion. Lucille provides Cher with some advice and also take advantage of her time on the stage to sing a Cher song.  Surreal? Yes. And acknowledged as such by the actresses on stage. It serves no real purpose and will likely end by the wayside before the musical makes its way to Broadway. In some respects, this is a shame: the audience deserves to see more of Emily Skinner. Paradoxically, it is Skinner who seems to best convey the qualities that Cher has as a singer. She sounded the most like Cher, which led me to wonder whether, perhaps, Skinner may ultimately transition to Broadway as one of the Chers. She’s wasted in the role of Cher’s mother.

The actor playing Sonny did a good job mimicking Bono’s vocal qualities. A few idiosyncrasies that might benefit from rethinking: Sonny was, notoriously, not a sex symbol. And yet, the audience is rewarded with a scene involving a shirtless Sonny that reveals him (or the actor playing him, to be more precise) to have been a buff hunk with a remarkably well-pronounced six pack. The gratuitous shirtless scene pulled me out of the already skimpy story line and was jarring precisely because the whole premise of Sonny and Cher was built on the “beauty and the beast” paradigm. (And, yes, as someone pointed out, the fact that Lady Cher appears to be actually shorter than Sonny is problematic in light of the fact that the disparity in height was also a cornerstone of the duo's act and is emphasized in scripted lines that are at odds with the visuals on stage.)

It seems slightly strange to have a rocker such as Gregg Allman portrayed as someone who might enjoy investing in Broadway-belting. No mention was made of the tours that Allman and Cher performed together or of the tension that existed between the two very different fan bases that these two artists cultivated. It was also strange to realize that the audience was never really given closure as to Gregg Allman’s departure from the story line.  here was some degree of foreshadowing as far as his drug usage is concerned. But the audience was never really told what happened to Gregg; he simply faded from the story (Gregg died from liver cancer last year; Cher attended his funeral).

The audience really seemed to enjoy the show. Be prepared for behavior that is more typical at concert venues than at theatrical productions. The man sitting behind me, for example, adamantly insisted on proving that he knew the lyrics to many songs and wasn’t ashamed to sing loudly along with the performers on stage. Many in the audience also felt no compunction at filming with their cell phones or snapping photos of the stage and set (during the performance).

The end of the show was a bit odd. The three Chers were center stage singing the upbeat disco tune TAKE ME HOME, dressed in almost Abba-esque outfits, while the actors who had appeared throughout the show all paraded individually across the stage, but there was no applause to salute their entrances: I suspect that the director anticipated that everyone would immediately recognize that this was the finale and give the actors a send-off to wild applause.That didn’t happen (which is not to say that the audience didn’t like the number; they simply didn’t “get” that this was the finale and therefore didn’t realize that the individual entrances were intended as a type of curtain call). I suspect the director will be rethinking how to close the show. At the end of Take Me Home, the company took another set of bows. And then it was up to Chicago’s Transportation Authority to Take Me Home. The show was long. I was glad trains were still running.

 Duse's later wrote: I stand corrected. There were some, very minimal, references to Chaz (Cher complains to Sonny that the demanding work schedule he's concocted is keeping her from having time with her kid, for example). But these references occupy no more than a minute or two at best of the entire show's long running time. If there's time for entire scenes that revolve around Lucille Ball or Phil Spector or The Dave Clark Five, then there should be time in The Cher Show to focus at least a bit on her relationship with her children (especially her relationship with Chaz, perhaps, because he is a public figure and the difficulties Cher surmounted in accepting her child's gender reassignment could have provided some useful lessons to those members of the audience who haven't confronted the issue directly).  

The book does emphasize some of the sacrifices that fame and superstardom entail, but primarily in terms of its impact on her relationships with men. Not much is made of how it impacted her relationship with her kids. But perhaps it was a foregone conclusion that the show would not go "there." As Elijah once pointed out:

 ‘Superstars are a difficult and unique breed. You have to be superficial to be a mega celebrity, you have to be… but who you are behind closed doors is really up you, there’s no cameras there.

‘Usually when there’s fame, there’s also brand of some sort, there’s also revenue. So whatever needs to be done to serve the generating of that revenue takes priority. I think that’s too big for anyone (famous) to escape.’  https://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2551939/Cher-never-congratulated-marriage-Elijah-Blue-reveals-rift-famous-mother-recovery-heroin-addiction-explosive-new-interview.html

The Cher Show is intended as pure entertainment. Comfort food is harder to enjoy when it includes unknown ingredients that challenge the taste buds.

Most importantly, ChgoTheatreGuy wrote: “They were selling window cards, magnets, coffee mugs, t-shirts and tote bags.  No souvenir programs yet…”

Nick Orrantia wrote on a Facebook group: “many of the songs were completely taken out of the era in which they originated and put into context to help tell Cher’s story, to help push the narrative. Many of the songs were also rearranged and sang very differently than they originally were…. I think another thing people were disappointed that the 3 Chers did not sound or really look like Cher. The youngest Cher did the best in my opinion because she did not try to sound or warble like Cher does, but the other 2 did and it did not come off well. Instead of just singing the songs in their own natural voices, they tried to sing them the way that she did/does and it sounded very karaoke at times. I think people were either disappointed that they didn’t sound like Cher enough or that they tried too much and too hard to sound like Cher, when in my opinion they should have just sang them the way it came natural for them.

[I agree wholeheartedly. Imitating Cher is an impossible task and always results in one’s missing Cher doing it.]

Having said that, all 3 of them were SPECTACULAR AND AMAZING singers...Cher’s whole life was filled with huge moments and the play would end up being 6 hours instead of 3 if they tried to include everything big in her life. …[lack of Chaz] I don’t think those moments with Chaz were career changing for Cher and this play was more about her career milestones, more so than her million different private life milestones...One final note, although Take Me Home is the finale, and Believe (the original dance version) is the encore, the show opens and closes with Cinderella’s A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes. Surprising songs included were Little Man, Dov’e l’Amore, I Hope You find It, Superstar, A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done, Ain’t No Body’s Business, Vamp, You Better Sit Down Kids.

Keep reading more fan reviews: https://www.broadwayworld.com/board/readmessage.php?page=10&thread=1107242

 See pics of the show:

NYC tickets: https://www.broadway.com/shows/cher-show/

There was also coverage of opening night by the Chicago TribuneI actually think the lack of Cher at the opening was very considerate to the show’s talent. She can steal focus.

And Cher did recently have an opportunity to see the show. Her review is interesting in itself: 

The three Cher's also met the real Cher: https://www.broadwayworld.com/article/Photo-The-Chers-of-THE-CHER-SHOW-Cher-A-Moment-with-Cher-20180625

And one review has come in from Urban Matter

"What I can say about this show is that the singing, acting, and writing are all incredible. I could have used more sequins as I’m a firm believer in the more sparkle, the better. The variety show aspect of it all was slightly jarring at times and took you out of the story, but I thought the entire production was well-done for a pre-Broadway run."

 

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