The Cher Show

Book by Rick Elice, music as performed by Cher
Royd, Cuffe and Taylor/ Live Nation, Playing Field, Aria Entertainment, Tilted and Jones Theatrical Group
Opera House, Manchester

The Cher Show Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
The Cher Show Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
The Cher Show Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
The Cher Show Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
The Cher Show Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
The Cher Show Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

The common perception of Cher is one of style over substance—an expensive clothes horse using cosmetic surgery to resist the effect of ageing. The Cher Show pokes fun at this attitude with a cheeky, defiantly celebratory acknowledgement. Tom Rogers’s set, which greets the audience on arrival, looks like a massive wardrobe—row after row of clothes on hangers stretching up to the heavens bookended by a collection of wigs.

Director Arlene Phillips opens in full Las Vegas mode—disco lights flaring through the theatre and the ensemble in what look like S&M black sailor suits vamping up a high-energy dance routine, only to grind to a halt as the diva is indisposed necessitating a stagehand standing in for the rehearsal. In her dressing room, Cher is plagued by doubts and wishes she could turn back time and review how she achieved her current stardom and iconic status.

The lives of artists are ripe for dramatisation—massive talent is often matched by personal demons driving them to destruction or redemption. The life story of Cher, however, is devoid of such interesting material. Raised in a poor household by a nurturing, supportive mother, she endures dyslexia and teasing at school that damage her confidence but the usual showbiz problems of too much too soon and the temptations of drink and drugs are avoided. The limited tension and conflict in her story come from relatively mundane issues: unwanted media attention, overwork / paucity of work and unhappy relationships. Cher’s music is far from radical; she and her husband Sonny Bono were the commercially acceptable face of the counterculture: sweet and unthreatening.

With such unpromising material, author Rick Elice keeps things light and goes for laughs. The script is full of good jokes, many at the expense of Cher: "Don’t you ever want to eat a carb?" she is asked at one point. But the script on occasion is hindered by some clumsy dialogue and, when it begins to detail the film roles Cher declined, it feels as though the author is struggling to find interesting material.

The story is told chronologically and the longevity of Cher’s career is reflected by the diva being played by three different actors. Millie O'Connell is the insecure ‘Babe’, Danielle Steers is ‘Lady’, Cher in her television heyday, and Debbie Kurup is ‘Star’: the warrior / goddess in full bloom. Although the actors represent Cher at different points in her life, on stage they work together as a chorus articulating Cher’s thoughts and motivations.

Considering Cher epitomises the glamour of showbiz, the colour palette for the show is remarkably monochrome—black, white and silver are the dominant colours of the sets and costumes, which makes the occasional blast of garish colour, representing the 1960s or the restraint-free style of the Sonny and Cher show, all the more effective.

For a jukebox musical, The Cher Show takes a radical approach to the interpretation of the songs. There is the usual trick of listing over 30 hits in the programme without mentioning that many are just excerpts, not the full versions. Yet director Phillips is not content to allow simple reproductions of the hits, preferring to use them to push along the narrative. "Bang Bang" is transformed from a gentle pop song to an angry heavy metal cry of outrage. The lyrics of "The Beat Goes On" are replaced and the music is used as backing for a rapid verbal rush through Cher’s starring roles in the movies.

Phillips relents for the finale, delivering the spectacular song and dance routine, which was teased but deferred at the opening. It is a crowd-pleasing end to a classy musical, although the absence of real-life drama in the storyline makes the show less compelling than one might wish.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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