How much Cher is too much Cher? I mean how much pasteurized celebrity information do you really, really want?
A related question posed by the new Broadway musical “The Cher Show,” now at the Neil Simon Theatre, is how many Chers are too many Chers? Three actresses divide the larger-than-life role: Micaela Diamond plays young, insecure, impetuous Babe; Teal Wicks is the feisty, still-coming-into-her-own Lady; and Stephanie J. Block dominates as Star, the legend in her never-ending prime.
“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” similarly broke its title character into three ages of divadom. “The Cher Show,” which has a book by “Jersey Boys” author Rick Elice, is a better show than “Summer.” And by better I mean it’s a glitzier and more entertaining ride. But once again the math is off: One singular superstar is infinitely greater than the sum of her theatrical knockoffs.
Play doctors are often needed for new Broadway musicals. “The Cher Show” could have benefited from one who specializes in jokes. The banter has all the spring of a bowl of leftover ramen. Here’s a sample from when all three Chers are having their initial powwow:
Wow. I do not age.
What’s your secret? Eating well? Hanging with great men?
I exercise. I even named my dog “6 miles” so I can say I walk 6 miles every day.
Omigod, you are such a bad-ass.
Granted, I’m not a living laugh track for lackluster comedy. I don’t purse my lips, but I shift uncomfortably in my seat. Fortunately, I was able to make it seem as if I were grooving to “If I Could Turn Back Time,” the song that precipitates our traveling back to the origins of Cher.
A Southern California girl whose real name is Cherilyn Sarkisian, young Cher is having a hard time fitting in. She complains to her mighty mother, Georgia (played by powerhouse Emily Skinner), that the kids at school make fun of her because her hair is so much darker than the other girls’.
“You’re not a freak, you’re just dark like your daddy, because he was Armenian,” Georgia reassures her daughter in a line that may have been co-written by Wikipedia. Cher also feels bad because she can’t keep up academically (dyslexia makes reading and math an obstacle course) and the father figures her mother brings into her life don’t stick around.
But instilled with the belief that she was destined for big things in life, Cher races off into the future, a 16-year-old who loses her shyness when she rips into a song. Sonny Bono (Jarrod Spector), a slick ladies’ man on the Sunset Strip hustling his music as best he can, becomes her reluctant guru before transforming into her Svengali husband once he recognizes the gold mine that’s fallen into his lap.
Spector plays Sonny like he has battery packs in his platform shoes. If he sounds more like Bob Dylan, he has just the right sleazy showbiz swagger. The show isn’t too hard on him — Cher appreciates the way he launched her stardom every bit as much as she cherishes her liberation from his chauvinistic control and tyrannical temper.
But neither her marriage nor her life after is deeply probed. This is a jukebox musical, where biography is processed through a kind of playwriting Auto-Tune, the audio program that artificially extended Cher’s hit-making ability.
Block’s vocal prowess never wavers throughout the show. Unlike the actresses in the Donna Summer musical, none of whom could match the distinctive brilliance of the singer they were impersonating, Block (whom you might recall from the musical “9 to 5”) could more than hold her own with Cher in a battle of the belters. Wicks and Diamond can’t help but recede into the background whenever she’s in full theatrical flow.
There’s plenty of male eye candy in the form of muscular, flesh-baring chorus dancers. Cher, who became famous with Sonny as hippies in London singing “I Got You Babe” before hitting the jackpot with their hit variety TV show, is at heart a Las Vegas phenomenon.
Sonny and Cher retooled their act and replenished their coffers in Vegas after they spent all the money they made in England. Their nightclub act, in which Sonny became the butt of Cher’s short jokes, is how they honed their husband and wife routine that catapulted them for a few years in the 1970s to the top of the TV ratings.
This a jukebox musical, where biography is processed through a kind of playwriting Auto-Tune.
Bob Mackie, the designer who conjured into existence Cher’s wildest clothing fantasies on the show, was integral to the star’s transformation into a pop cultural butterfly. As the costume designer here, he adds to the swirl of outrageous glamour. A parade of outfits that only Cher (or the lithest of drag queens) could get away with is the production’s most memorable coup de théâtre.
“The Cher Show,” which is directed by Jason Moore and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, seduces when it’s in swirling motion. The songs thankfully unhook from their flimsy biographical nails and before you know it you’re darting your head back and forth mindlessly to such oldies but politically incorrect goodies as “Half-Breed,” “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” and “Dark Lady.”
With everything going on in the world right now, the vicissitudes of Cher’s career don’t seem all that meaningful. She may tweet like a Sphinx, but she rises regularly like a Phoenix. Who would have imagined when she was trading cheesy quips with Sonny that one day she’d be collecting an Academy Award in a sexy tarantula getup?
Hollywood eventually snapped out of it. Cher conquers only to fall again. Each time, however, she can’t help wondering if fame, which she calls “that fleeting bitch,” has finally abandoned her for good. At this point, I doubt an apocalypse could take her out. And to be honest, I don’t really care that she had to stoop to infomercials to cover her gigantic overhead. I have my own bills.
It’s boneheaded to expect genuine drama from a commercial vehicle of this sort, but it’s odd that the show avoids the subject of Cher’s transgender son, Chaz Bono, given that so much of their story has already been aired in public. The discretion seems misplaced in a musical about a star who has lived a good portion of her public life in fishnets.
For a musical with all the depth of a spread in Us Weekly, “The Cher Show,” running nearly 2½ hours, seems ludicrously long. At times it felt as if I were doing a marathon of laps in a pool of glitter. But when “Believe” blasts and the three Chers are encircled by hunks, it’s impossible not to karaoke along.
Follow me @charlesmcnulty