Is it possible to be brainwashed by sequins? I was so addled by the finale of The Cher Show that I began to imagine a tiny, spandex-and-spangle-clad devil on my shoulder, poking me behind the ear with a diamond-studded pitchfork and murmuring, “Shhh … You’re having a good time. Just … believe.” Nice try, but not today, sparkly Satan. The Cher Show is not good. It’s extravagantly, almost triumphantly not good. It’s such a garish, obvious pastiche, such an unabashedly soulless explosion of wigs and trite memoir wisdom, that somewhere in the midst of its overinflated two and a half hours — probably during one of its dips into stodgy, life-lesson-y sentiment between showstoppers — you start to wonder: Is this gusher of shamelessness the only thing that could have happened here? Is the show so ludicrous that it’s somehow transcended itself? Is it a victory for camp? It’s Cher, after all. As one of her onstage iterations says to her second husband, the strung-out folk rocker Gregg Allman (or, as this millennial kept thinking of him, Legolas with sideburns), when he tells her she “doesn’t understand excess”: “Have you seen my costumes?” Yes, yes we have. And if the screams in the audience every time another Bob Mackie getup takes the stage are any measure, the clothes are 90 percent of what we came for. They’re like King Kong’s big monkey. Is it wrong — or at best, useless — to critique a fashion show with musical numbers as if it’s actually a play?
It might be, but here goes.
To start with, there are the show’s three Chers: Micaela Diamond as the “Babe,” Teal Wicks as the “Lady,” and Stephanie J. Block (it feels right to have at least one Elphaba in the mix) as the “Star.” I just kept seeing the three Donna Summers from a few blocks over raising their eyebrows: Is this three-body-diva thing like, a thing now? When are we getting the Madonna musical, complete with Blonde Ambition Madonna, Kabbalah Madonna, and Rebel Heart Madonna? The guy who ran the kiddie community theater in my hometown used to rake in the registration fees by casting three different girls as Little Snow White, Medium Snow White, and Big Snow White — he got it. But with Summer — a tighter, more genuinely enjoyable show overall — playing just up the street, Cher’s triple-threat strategy feels a bit cribbed. Shamelessness can be exciting, even liberating, but there’s something about this show’s brazen hodgepodge of first-thought–worst-thought ideas that feels both a little bit clueless (wrong Cher) and so commercial it might as well be playing at breaks during the Super Bowl.
It’s a gimmick that would make the strippers from Gypsy proud: Three times the pipes, sure, but more importantly, three times the outfits! Variety has already called the outlandish costumes by Mackie, Cher’s couturier of choice since 1967, “the real star of the show.” It’s true. The designer himself is brought to life by Michael Berresse (who also plays Robert Altman, which gives you a sense of just how many wigs these people are going through), and his sky-high, sparkling, skin-baring creations get a whole number to themselves. It’s a sort of “Beautiful Girl” from Singin’ in the Rain with way more underboob. Pretty much every one of the diva’s most memorable fashion statements has been painstakingly recreated, from the 1986 Oscars mohawk (or, Elvira Sticks Her Finger in a Socket) to the “If I Could Turn Back Time” G-string and biker jacket, to this particularly questionable ensemble — which seems to get a pass because it’s sported coquettishly by a male member of the ensemble who’s so jacked he looks like he’s got small animals living in each of his thighs. Or maybe because, fuck it, it’s Cher?!
That’s the general vibe in the audience, and far be it from me to knock a good old-fashioned over-the-top–fest. (I consider this an insane masterpiece, so.) But The Cher Show feels awkwardly stuck between blowout jukebox concert — a triple-your-pleasure cover act for one of the superstar’s endless farewell tours — and schmaltzy bio-play. And there’s way too much of the latter. The twist that book-writer Rick Elice has added to the Baby Diva–Prime Diva–Mature Diva formula is that not only are the Chers able to consult and comfort each other across time; they can also step in for each other in moments of need, or of triumph. When Block’s Cher wins her Oscar for Moonstruck, she lets Diamond’s Cher accept the award — because it was little Cherilyn Sarkisian who dreamed of being an actress. And when, after years of heartache and professional exploitation, Final Form Cher is finally able to cut ties with Sonny Bono (Jarrod Spector, doing an eerily good impression), she encourages Wicks’s Cher to be the one to make the stand: “C’mon, this is your chance,” Star-Cher urges Lady-Cher like a supportive big sister. “Do what you couldn’t do before: Tell him.”
When the Chers’ Wonder-Triplets Powers activate, it’s meant to be moving — our heroine is growing and learning — but the moments have a sappy, oddly insular effect, like watching someone else’s life-coaching session. That’s the thing about “Behind the Music” stories: It’s not actually as fun as we think, and it’s hardly ever revelatory, to have pop icons humanized. We hear the same tired refrains over and over again: I was a mousy kid who found her voice. I had nothing and now I’m a star. “I went from shy-and-afraid-of-people to Goddess-Warrior-With-Wings.” And so can you! Or, no, not really, but you can pay to watch me.
The funny thing is, I have no argument with the legend status of actual Cher. Her creative gambles, non-stop reinventions, and reigning queen status in a testosterone-soaked industry are incredible feats and speak of a human being with more than everyday ambition and endurance. (Perhaps an upside of The Cher Show is that, by proxy, it probably tells us more about Sarah Bernhardt than Bernhardt/Hamlet did.) Cher is the only artist ever to have number-one Billboard chart singles in six consecutive decades. She’s 72 and still touring — and she called her early-aughts tour Living Proof, which is about as hilarious a piece of winking badassery as I’ve heard of recently. She’s a bedazzled beast, and one of The Cher Show’s few truly effective zingers comes when Wicks’s Lady dares to suggest to Block’s Star that it might be time “to fade away gracefully.” “Tell that to Mick Jagger,” Block snaps. Point taken.
It’s the show’s blithely formulaic nature that drags things down. Elice’s book is a string of easy punchlines and hoky teaching moments — in which everyone from the diva’s tenacious mother Georgia Holt to Lucille Ball (both Emily Skinner) gets a signpost on the path to ultimate girl-power — and Jason Moore’s direction is blandly splashy, the paint-by-numbers approach to this kind of material. The ensemble throws themselves gamely into Christopher Gattelli’s choreography, though Gattelli’s work only comes to life intermittently, notably in an athletic sequence to “Dark Lady” led by the fearless and flexible dancer Ashley Blair Fitzgerald. Meanwhile, no one is being helped by Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis’s hulking, spinning, flashing, gold-palm-tree–featuring set, which often calls to mind the kind of restaurant where they serve mozzarella sticks, and they’re $24.99 an order.
In the time I’ve been writing this, I’ve gotten more real enjoyment out of watching old Cher videos as research than I did in the theater. And I think I’d probably get a kick out of seeing her in concert, where I have a feeling the ceaseless, high-gear pop-splosion, unburdened by autobiographical platitudes or pretensions toward plot and character, would somehow feel more honest. I’m okay with the real thing, and even with nostalgia in YouTube-size bites — but not as the only fuel in the tank when you’re trying to do a play. Put Cher, or even three Chers, on Broadway and not only do you in fact decrease the potential for expected spectacle — you’ve also got to try to make her into, well, theater. And that requires more than costumes, even costumes by Bob Mackie. It requires more than several good Cher impressions (Diamond, Wicks, and Block are all doing their best Janice-from-the-Electric-Mayhem voices, and Block especially sounds great belting out the brassy, vibrato-heavy hits). It requires more than wigs and wings and sailors and celebrities and tango-ing gypsies and hoedown-ing cowboys. The problem isn’t that it’s all too much. It’s that, when all the glitter’s swept up, it’s not nearly enough.
The Cher Show is at the Neil Simon Theatre.