The Cher Show

Book by Rick Elice, music as performed by Cher
Royo, Fiery Angel, Cuffe & Taylor/Live Nation, Playing Field, Aria Entertainment, Tilted and Jones Theatrical Group
Grand Opera House, York

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Millie O’Connell (Baby), Debbie Kurup (Star) and Danielle Steers (Lady) Credit: Pamela Raith
Debbie Kurup (Star) Credit: Pamela Raith
Millie O’Connell (Baby) Credit: Pamela Raith

“The only thing that will be left after a nuclear holocaust is cockroaches and Cher.” This is not a word-perfect quotation—and the identity of the quipper has been lost—but the sentiment it conveys is loud and clear: Cher is a survivor.

She is also a musical chameleon, renowned for reinventing her image and music on a regular basis—long before Madonna and Lady Gaga got in on the act—and this has helped her to gain a vast and devoted following. While I can appreciate Cher’s talents as a singer and actor (particularly her Oscar-winning turn in Moonstruck), I don’t count myself as a fan per se. For this reason, I felt slightly apprehensive about watching The Cher Show, particularly as the biographical jukebox musical is not my favourite subgenre.

My low expectations were trounced by The Cher Show, which offers audiences a hugely enjoyable whistle-stop tour of the titular icon’s career, from her childhood in the 1950s to her present-day status as a musical institution embarked on a never-ending series of farewell tours.

The show is framed as an extended flashback in which present-day Cher (Debbie Kurup)—referred to in the programme as “Star”—experiences a lapse in confidence before the start of a concert, and rediscovers her mojo by communing with two earlier versions of herself. This kickstarts a fast-paced retelling of Cher’s life story, with Millie O’Connell (“Baby”) playing her from childhood up to her twenties and Danielle Steers (“Lady”) embodying her from the late sixties to the mid-seventies. During these two phases, we see Cher overcome childhood trauma (school bullying and the departure of her stepfather), marry Sonny Bono (Guy Woolf), rise and fall in the music industry, rise and fall again in variety TV and get divorced.

In the second half, Debbie Kurup returns to the forefront—although the three versions of Cher drift in and out of each other’s stories, offering advice and censure—and the show gallops through several decades, including a brief stint on Broadway, huge film roles in the eighties, thwarted relationships and a series of musical renaissances. While still very entertaining, I would argue that the second half is over-stuffed, meaning that some aspects of her life and career are not given enough time to resonate, such as her relationship with the younger actor Rob Camilletti (Sam Ferriday). On the plus side, Arlene Phillips’s fast-paced direction succeeds in keeping energy levels high.

When I first saw the three Chers talking together, I was concerned that this device would not work, particularly as Cher impersonations can so easily slip into parody. My worries were quickly allayed, as each of the three performers does a superb job of capturing Cher during the different stages of her life. Millie O’Connell effortlessly conveys young Cher’s wide-eyed charm and quirkiness, and I enjoyed her performance so much that my heart sank when I realised that she was about to morph (à la Doctor Who) into a different performer.

Fortunately, Danielle Steers picks up the ball and runs with it. Not only does she sing with great emotional force, she powerfully captures Cher’s sense of frustration at being exploited by her husband and forced to work long hours away from her daughter. Completing the triad is Debbie Kurup, who skilfully embodies the mixture of strength, vulnerability and goofy humour that has endeared Cher to millions across the globe.

The supporting cast is also strong. Guy Woolf does an excellent job of showing how Sonny Bono changed over the years, and Tori Scott captures the indomitable spirit of Georgia, Cher’s adoring mother. Jake Mitchell makes a splash as Bob Mackie, the legendary designer responsible for some of Cher’s most outré costumes, and Sam Ferriday breathes life into several minor characters.

Oti Mabuse’s athletic choreography is energetically performed by the dance team, and there is plenty of visual spectacle to enjoy courtesy of Ben Cracknell’s lighting and Tom Rogers’s set design. The stage is flanked by two large shelving units containing dozens of wigs, clearly illustrating the various images that Cher has adopted over the years. Her eye-catching fashion choices are also brilliantly rendered through Gabriella Slade’s costumes.

Watching the show reminded me of how many good songs Cher has in her back catalogue, including “I Got You Babe”, “Bang Bang”, “If I Could Turn Back Time” and “The Shoop Shoop Song”, but unfortunately not all of them are sung in their entirety due to time constraints.

All things considered, I would describe The Cher Show as one of the most surprisingly enjoyable shows that I’ve watched this year.

Reviewer: James Ballands