By now, we should all know to never underestimate Cher.
The same can easily be said for The Cher Show, the relentlessly entertaining and blindingly infectious new musical that opened Monday evening at The Neil Simon Theatre.
But while The Cher Show charts the ups and downs…and ups and downs…and ups and downs of Cher’s six decade-long career, you won’t find the name Cher listed amongst the cast of characters. Rather, The Cher Show takes a three-pronged approach to the enigmatic superstar and has split her into three, each from a different era of her career: Babe (Micaela Diamond), Lady (Teal Wicks), and Star (Stephanie J. Block). Diamond is a beautifully breakable Babe, a young, shy, star in the making who leaves home at 16 and meets Sonny Bono (an appropriately nasal and oh-so-buff Jarrod Spector). Wicks looks the part as the mid-career Lady, a Cher who begins to find her footing on the stages of Las Vegas, though she is short changed as far as material is concerned; Star gets most of the good stuff.
It’s been 15 years since Stephanie J. Block made her Broadway debut as Liza Minnelli in The Boy from Oz and since then she has grown into a reliable leading lady, even if her material hasn’t always been up to snuff. But this might be Block’s greatest performance yet, not only for her precise impersonation (which is, in itself, a work of art), but for the rich sense of humanity she brings to Cher, who even well into her career was counted out time and time again. Her eyes sparkle incessantly, almost as if Bob Mackie hand-placed one custom-made gemstone in each eye. Simply put, to see Stephanie J. Block as Cher is to worship at the altar of greatness.
With a book by Jersey Boys scribe Rick Elice and intensely affectionate direction by Jason Moore (Avenue Q), the three Chers not only tell their own slivers of the story but also do the very risky thing of interacting with one another, tag teaming their way through difficult moments and banding together to persevere through others. And in this way, The Cher Show plays like something of a fairy tale, not altogether inappropriate given the meteoric heights of Cher’s career and her larger-than-life, well…everything.
The musical still falls into the traps of the jukebox genre and despite its high-octane good naturedness, it suffers from a bit of an identity crisis in the way that part of the show plays like an old school variety show and other parts aim for earnest musical theater, even drama. Elice’s script is full of Cherisms, provocative sound bites from different interviews she’s done over the years (“Mom, I am a rich man”), but it also veers into cheezeball territory that feels surprisingly lazy (“He’s more into you than I am into this bong!” quips Cher’s friend at one point).
Two great stage veterans Michael Berresse and Emily Skinner make solid contributions to the small, thankless roles of Bob Mackie and Cher’s mother, Georgia Holt. Skinner in particular feels shortchanged, though she makes a delicious cameo as Lucille Ball, who duets with Cher on “Heart of Stone.”
As you’d expect, the show has style to burn. Christine Jones’s ever-moving walls of light are dazzling and functional, and Bob Mackie stops the show with his absurdly gorgeous recreations of some of Cher’s most outrageous looks, a plea for the Best Costumes Tony Award if ever there was one.
Christopher Gattelli’s choreography is a blast, but it’s problematic that the most memorable dance number is part of a scene that unbelievably finds Sonny and new beau Gregg Allman (Matthew Hydzik) engaging in a sing-off to “Dark Lady” while a supple Ashley Blair Fitzgerald is tossed around the stage.
A two and a half hour musical that covers six decades has to move quickly, and The Cher Show does an admirable job with this, even if important moments feel glossed over. The most notable glossing over is that of Chaz (born Chastity), but the decision to refer to the only child of Sonny and Cher as Chaz decades before his transition feels less like rewriting history and more like a subtle statement on gender identity.
The Cher Show implores us to “believe,” not only in Cher (and, honestly, who among us does not?) but in the conceit of the musical, which is admittedly a hard sell at times, particularly for only casual Cher fans. But it still ranks among the better jukebox musicals and is, for better or for worse, an absolute delight from start to finish.
Cher herself is one of the three producers of The Cher Show and has been involved with the musical since its conception. And if it’s good enough for Cher, then, by God, it’s good enough for us.
THE CHER SHOW. THE NEIL SIMON THEATRE, 250 WEST 52ND ST., NEW YORK. THECHERSHOW.COM
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.