United Kingdom The Cher Show: Cliffs Pavilion, Southend-on-Sea, Essex. 16.8.2022. (JPr)
If you asked someone randomly who they consider the ‘Goddess of Pop’ is it is unlikely whether many will now say Cher because it depends how old you are. For some it would undoubtedly be her, for others it could be Madonna or Lady Gaga. All three are musical icons who defy passing years, have career highs and lows and are leaving an indelible stamp on popular culture, but Cher paved the way for them both and I am sure they will get bio-musicals too in time. The Cher Show with a book by Rick Elice (of Jersey Boys fame) opened on Broadway late in 2018 and closed about eight months later but did win three Tony Awards including for Stephanie J Block (Lead Actress in a Musical) and Bob Mackie (Costume Design for a Musical). It is now on a year long tour of the UK and Ireland with a new director (Dame Arlene Phillips), choreographer (Oti Mabuse) and costumes (Gabriella Slade).
At the Cliffs Pavilion we get the CliffsNotes of Cher’s rise-fall-rise-fall and rise again. We first meet the gawky, insecure Cherilyn Sarkisian and her mother, Georgia, who was divorced from John Sarkisian (an American-Armenian truck driver) when Cher-to-be was less than a year old. Later she remarries John Southall though the couple split-up when Cher was only nine. It is a rather unhappy childhood because she is taunted about her mixed heritage (cue song ‘Half Breed’). Cher leaves home at 16 moving in with a couple of friends in LA seeking – as so many have – fame and fortune. Through Phil Spector – then legendary record producer and now infamous convicted murderer – Cher meets Sonny Bono. Beginning as Caesar and Cleo they take the advice of the Rolling Stones that to make it big in the US you had to be a success in the UK; they release ‘I Got You Babe’, knock The Beatles off the top of the charts, and the rest is entertainment history. Hit records followed, they marry and soon their child, Chaz, is born, soon cracks appear in their relationship mainly because of the control Sonny exerted over her life and career and especially because of the demands on her as a young mother. There is success on TV in The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour and through their Cher Enterprises except she realised eventually that it seemed 95% of the money was for Sonny, 5% for a lawyer and nothing that was actually hers. This is where Cher’s fight for female autonomy in a male-dominated industry began as she began to take control of who she was and what she did, resulting in more chart success and becoming a TV personality in her own right and, of course, a fashion trendsetter famed for her skimpy outfits designed by legendary couturier Bob Mackie.
Later we rush through Cher’s split with Sonny and their subsequent divorce and her relationship with drug-addicted rocker Greg Allman (with whom she has a son, Elijah Blue) and baker and aspiring actor Rob ‘Bagel Boy’ Camilletti, several years her junior. With her popularity seemingly in an unstoppable downward spiral she decides to pursue an acting career and auditions successfully for Robert Altman’s Broadway stage production of Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean and was acclaimed for her performance and was cast in the film adaptation. Success in the movies was not a given either and we hear how when she starred with Meryl Streep (in Sllkwood) the audience laughed at a preview when they saw her name in the credits. However, her performance earned her a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. A career high was the 1987 Moonstruck when Cher won the Oscar for Best Actress and in 1989 her song ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’ was a big hit. (Though caused controversy due to Cher’s performance on the battleship USS Missouri, straddling a cannon!).
This level of success was not to last and battling chronic fatigue syndrome Cher turned down leading roles in The War of the Roses and Thelma & Louise having to resort to infomercials. Sonny died in 1998 and it returned Cher to some prominence, but it was her 22nd studio album Believe the same year which relaunched her career marking a musical departure for her, since it was it was comprised of dance-pop songs with the title track reaching number one in 23 countries and becoming her most successful single. Forever retiring or making a comeback Cher is the ultimate survivor and that’s what this show celebrates. So give or take, this is what we see, but leaves out so much more of course and there is particularly no direct reference to her reliance on plastic surgery to hold back time.
Being of a certain vintage I have seen many of the great entertainers of my generation as compared to this generation, the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Bob Hope, Liberace, Shirley MacLaine, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand and many more, but never Cher for some reason. The Cher Show was – at the very least – an indirect way of seeing her perform live. Rick Elice blends over three dozen musical numbers with the dialogue which breathlessly takes us through Cher’s biography outlined above but sometimes it is only a minute or so of any song you hear. It is only when one is sung all the way through that you most connect with this musical. At the end there is an all-too-brief rousing megamix singalong finale which gets the audience to its feet making them leave the theatre possibly thinking they enjoyed the show more than they actually did.
The first half is too long, too campy (yes, we get it that Cher has a strong following in the LGBTQ+ community) and several Sonny and Cher jokes – mainly at the expense of his small stature – fall flat. Tom Rogers’s set is a strange one and we are backstage in a TV studio framed with myriad wigs and headgear with racks of garment bags to the rear which just has a couple of doors in it. Otherwise, all we see are four glittery flats that are moved around, some stage furniture such as make-up desks, and two sets of mobile stairs, the type with platforms at the top which are overused. More intriguingly, through the use of props or some lighting we are shown the year what we are watching happened in. The costumes for the three Chers – more of these later – are suitably glitzy and glamourous and show them over the decades. However, the rhinestone-encrusted ones for the ensemble are rather unchanging and hint at the sailors from that ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’ video. As ever the pacing is not right even after a few months on tour, 15 minutes and more could be easily lost from the start but it is a ‘game of two halves’ and The Cher Show improves so much after the interval. You might even feel your eyes moisten when Cher addresses the ‘dead’ Sonny and they poignantly reprise ‘I Got You Babe’.
Babe (Millie O’Connell) is the youngest Cher; we see her at home with her caring mother (Tori Scott) and the early years of showbiz success with Sonny (characterfully played by Lucas Rush). Danielle Steers’s Lady negotiates the up and downs of the 1970s while Debbie Kurup’s Star creates the Cher of the 1980s, 90s and beyond, including that touching ‘reconciliation’ with the recently deceased Sonny. Often the three are onstage interacting and singing together with older Chers counselling younger ones with the benefit of hindsight and the youngest Chers celebrating what they have gone on to achieve. All three have outstanding voices and are good actors and suggest Cher without being merely a tribute act. Each make too many standout contributions to list them all but highlights include ‘Half-Breed’ and the ‘I Got You Babe’ duet for O’Connell’s Babe; ‘Bang Bang’ and ‘We All Sleep Alone’ for Steers’s Lady; and for Kurup’s Star there was ‘Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves’ and ‘Just Like Jesse James’ (mainly because Sam Ferriday’s Greg Allman looked so much like UK’s rising star, Sam Ryder). Acting-wise Kurup is particularly impressive in the Broadway audition scene. There was so much that was excellent vocally from all the Chers and they were supported by a valiant small band so well concealed that they never got a curtain call. Ferriday did well as a number of the men in Cher’s life, though Jake Mitchell was OTT as the flamboyant Bob Mackie. There was a very enthusiastic ensemble (as ‘Cher’s Entourage’) who were given choreography – credited to Oti Mabuse – which they danced with little sense of embarrassment even though it was straight from a seaside summer show of the 1970s and 80s.
Far from the worst of these bio-musicals, The Cher Show isn’t as good as it might have been, but the songs are great and get full value from Millie O’Connell, Danielle Steers and, especially, Debbie Kurup, so that is worth the ticket price alone if you want an upbeat night out.
For more about The Cher Show on tour click here.
Debbie Kurup – Star
Danielle Steers – Lady
Millie O’Connell – Babe
Lucas Rush – Sonny
Jake Mitchell – Bob Mackie
Sam Ferriday – Greg Allman/Rob Camilletti/Phil Spector/John Southall
Tori Scott – Georgia
Cher’s Entourage – Ensemble
Book – Rick Elice
Music – as performed by Cher
Director – Arlene Phillips
Musical Supervisor, Orchestrations and Arrangements – Rich Morris
Choreographer – Oti Mabuse
Set designer – Tom Rogers
Costume designer – Gabriella Slade
Lighting designer – Ben Cracknell
Sound designer – Dan Samson
Musical Director – Danny Belton