The thing about The Cher Show is that, at some point, you pass through the veil of real life where things like logic and sense bear down and you emerge in a sequined and discoballed alter-realm where divas talk to themselves and it’s hard to remember where you are or where you came from. Like its namesake, The Cher Show establishes its own terms and lives and dies by them. It refuses to be beholden to anything you thought you needed from a musical. The result is equal parts exhilarating and mystifying, hilarious and stupefying, empowering and conflicting. Sounds like Cher to me.
Rick Elice’s book frames the story of Cher’s rise to fame as a This is Your Life-style pageant, narrated by Star (Stephanie J. Block), the oldest – or shall we say most established – version of the woman who began life as Cherilyn Sarkisian. Star drags out and introduces characters like her mother (Emily Skinner) and her younger self, Babe (Micaela Diamond), to enact scenes from her childhood, like when kids made fun of her for being half-Armenian. And since this is a bio-musical, they sing about it (cue “Half-Breed”). That continues until Elice introduces us to the middle incarnation of Cher, Lady (Teal Wicks), and he realizes it’s more interesting to have the three Chers talk to each other.
This is where the whole thing catapults itself into an alternate universe. Dividing the main character in three is nothing new. It’s done most successfully in Fun Home, but in The Cher Show, it’s closer to a cross between Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and Act II of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Does that combo give you a sense of how wacky this device is? In this instance, the Chers share wisdom with each other and urge their older sel(f/ves) to remember their childhood goals and promises they made to themself. There are countless pep talks from Cher to Cher. I thought lovingly and often of the ridiculous YouTube video where Cher sings all the parts in West Side Story. The Cher Show is fundamentally about self-love and Elice has physicalized that by having the self split into three where two can build up the other one as needed. Does it still pass the Bechdel test if the three named women are all actually the same woman?
As nuts as the whole enterprise is, it goes so far into the absurd that it reinvents the theatrical rules that bio-musicals depend on. Eventually, you don’t need it to flow smoothly from one stage of Cher’s life to another, you just need Stephanie J. Block to blow the roof off the Neil Simon with that megawatt voice again. You just need Micaela Diamond’s Babe to find her star power. You just need Teal Wicks to sardonically put Sonny Bono (Jarrod Spector) in his place.
And it delivers. The Cher Show is obviously geared toward Cher’s fans and the gasps are audible when Block launches into “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” or when Spector’s tenor juts out and apes Bono perfectly. In fact, it is the caliber of the performances that keep it from sliding into Las Vegas impersonator or drag queen territory. Diamond has the least road to travel in terms of tailoring her performance to the Cher we know so well, but her transformation from tricycle-riding child into confident performer is gradated effectively and her vocal talent flies with the unharnessed spirit of youth. Wicks has the least stage time, but carries the emotional weight of Cher’s break up with Bono. Wicks jumps into the story after they’ve met and fallen in love and jumps out of the story soon after their dissolution, but her connection to Spector is no less believable than Diamond’s. She is tasked with a difficult emotional core, but she sews the thread between her older and younger selves convincingly.
The night belongs to Stephanie J. Block, though. She rises on a platform from below the stage at the top of the show and sets the tone immediately – we will hear from Cher, this will be told from Cher’s voice, no third-person bullshit here. Block’s presence is commanding; she is to Broadway as Cher is to music, which makes the casting inspired. She finds a way to incorporate the myriad vocal distinctions that define both Cher’s speaking and singing voice without losing herself in an easy impression.
In the last third of the show, Block stands in front of a scrim on the lip of the stage and sings in a spotlight as Cher auditions for Robert Altman. In this moment, the show is stripped of its campy sparkle, but the pipes on Block make all the flashiness that came before seem like mere embers. It’s the first (and maybe the only) totally truthful emotional moment in the two and half hours of glitz and glam. Even when Lady is struggling with leaving Sonny, it does not have the emotional impact that this moment of Block’s conjures. It is transporting. Block taps into the rawness of feeling like you’re not good enough, that no matter what you do, you won’t be taken seriously, and it emanates from her voice and her body in waves.
A lot of talk has centered on the hundreds of Bob Mackie costumes on display and that about sums up what The Cher Show has to offer. They’re impressive if you’re into Mackie feathers and spangles, and who isn’t – they’re gorgeous in their reach for more more more. The same can be said for The Cher Show. It’s dressed to the nines and it’s asking for many a gay shriek, but it doesn’t have much else to offer. Who says that’s not enough, though? It knows what it is and it embraces it. If a musical can’t be high art, at least it can be low art with integrity. Low art is still art, after all.