A stage adaptation drawn from early episodes of the classic TV comedy is a faithful but hollow imitation of its source material.
The main question posed by Cheers Live on Stage is this: Do you wanna go where everybody knows your name, even if you don’t know theirs? Unlike the similarly licensed I Love Lucy Live on Stage, previously seen at the Broadway Playhouse, which interpolated lots of period backstage business for a you-are-there ’50s feel, Cheers Live is a straight-up reenactment. The script amalgamates elements of four or five episodes from the classic sitcom’s first season, from the pilot up through Sam and Diane’s first kiss.
If you haven’t seen the original in a while (or ever), the stage show’s first half is a reminder of just how solid the sitcom’s writing was from the start; these characters and their rhythms feel more complete in the first couple of “episodes” than most TV comedies manage. But as adapter Erik Forrest Jackson interpolates later standalone episodes then jumps ahead to Sam and Diane’s season-ending clinch, the pace gets choppy; Jackson’s script wants to be a self-contained thing, but the ebb and flow of individual episode plots within it feels odd. What’s more, you notice the absence of the story beats left out in compressing a 22-episode season into two hours.
Fans of the TV show will no doubt get a small thrill seeing the Boston bar lovingly rendered in three dimensions, and at getting to join in the collective bellowing welcome at every entrance of “Norm!” (Practically the entire opening night audience did so, instinctually, when actor Paul Vogt first showed up in the George Wendt role.) Superfans can even purchase VIP tickets that allow them to go on stage at intermission and belly up for a beer themselves. And it should be said that much of the cast is offering adept, technically precise impersonations of their televised forebears.
Grayson Powell, as Sam Malone, gets Ted Danson’s voice and loping physicality remarkably right, and Jillian Louis as Diane seems to have been practicing Shelley Long’s vocal quirks since birth. Close your eyes, and you’d almost believe you were listening to the original cast. Yet there’s an uncanny-valley aspect to the experience—being present in the room with these much-loved characters, but knowing they’re just not quite the real thing. It left me wondering what would lead Cheers fans to shell out up to $97 a seat for this, when you can own the complete series DVD box set for $69.99 from Amazon, or stream all 11 seasons on Netflix. These versions of Sam, Diane, Carla, Coach, Norm and Cliff don’t really know your name, after all.
Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place. Adapted by Erik Forrest Jackson. Directed by Matt Lenz. With Jillian Louis, Barry Pearl, Grayson Powell, Buzz Roddy, Sarah Sirota, Paul Vogt. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.