Theater review by Adam Feldman
“I’m a goddam Goddess Warrior!” declares the title character—one of them, anyhow—in the camp-carnival musical The Cher Show, and who would dare to argue? If this cultural icon (and newly anointed Kennedy Center Honoree) has managed to hold our attention for more than five decades, it’s been largely on the basis of her kick-ass poise. “You may not be the prettiest, or the smartest, or the most talented,” says her mother, Georgia (a flinty Emily Skinner), in an early scene. “But you’re special”—so special, in fact, that The Cher Show deploys not one but three performers to embody the diva at different ages. This may seem a strange approach to a star defined by her individuality, but it is true to her more-is-more spirit and, on a practical level, a useful device for navigating the vast swath of time that the musical depicts, from 1952 through the very celebration we are seeing.
All Chers, mind you, have not been created equal: In this glitzy account, there is Cher and there are Cher-alikes. The oldest of the trio, identified as Star—and played by the terrific Stephanie J. Block in a full-throated impersonation that avoids the trap of the impersonal—dominates the proceedings; she is flanked by two younger ones, Lady (the capable Teal Wicks) and Babe (Micaela Diamond, a very assured teenager). The three of them alternate duties and occasionally argue with each other in limbo, Three Tall Women—style. Some of the scenes are played straight; others suggest sketch-comedy versions of themselves on the TV variety shows that Cher hosted in the 1970s with then-husband Sonny Bono (crowd favorite Jarrod Spector, expertly mimicking Bono’s high whine).
Directed by Jason Moore, the show whirls through six decades at a dizzying pace that disguises, up to a point, that it doesn’t have much to stand on. We are told a dozen times that Cher is “shy,” and her mother’s advice—”The song makes you strong”—is repeated more than once. But unlike the songs in, say, Beautiful, Cher’s actual hits can’t support that task: They are likeable but skimpy pop ditties. Rick Elice’s script responds to this challenge by skipping past most of them quickly: We hear only snippets before the musical hurries on to some new montage, narration or set change. The show covers so much ground that it can’t dig into any one narrative, and although Cher is known for self-exposure, the storytelling is guarded. Her major relationships—with Bono, whom Cher met when she was 16 years old and he was 28, as well as southern rocker Gregg Allman (Matthew Hydzik) and young bagel baker Rob Camilletti (Michael Campayno)—are handled with gracious kid gloves; her first child is retconned into Chaz from the start.
Yet it can’t be said that The Cher Show doesn’t provide what it promises: Cher, Cher and more Cher. The costumes, by the star’s real-life coutourier Bob Mackie (who is also a character in the show, played affably by Michael Berresse), are simply sensational, ranging from the nostalgia trippiness of the 1960s to the famous feathered get-up of the 1986 Oscars and a full-on fashion show of outré gowns that would be the envy of any RuPaul’s Drag Race finale. The sexy chorus of 14 struts shamelessly, especially in the second-act showstopper “Dark Lady” (choreographed by Christopher Gattelli and featuring Ashley Blair Fitzgerald as a fourth, dream-ballet Cher, literally tossed among various muscular suitors). Like Cher herself, the musical has the virtue of never seeming to take itself too seriously: It’s a delivery system for fabulousness, right up to its Mamma Mia!–like finale, and as such it succeeds. It falls a bit shy, but it’s strong enough.
Neil Simon Theatre (Broadway). Book by Rick Elice. Music and lyrics by various writers. Directed by Jason Moore. With Stephanie J. Block, Teal Wicks, Micaela Diamond, Jarrod Spector. Running time: 2hrs 25mins. One intermission.