Book: Rick Elice
Director: Arlene Phillips
With a back catalogue of bangers and a career in the entertainment industry spanning six decades, it wasinevitable that the life and music of Cher would one day be brought to the stage. That day came in 2018, when The Cher Show had its tryout in Chicago prior to running for a year on Broadway, in a production that garnered Tony Awards for leading actress Stephanie J Block and costume designer Bob Mackie. The musical has been reworked for UK audiences, and it’s currently enjoying a UK tour, which plays this week at the Milton Keynes Theatre.
Cher herself has an abundance of natural theatricality to her persona, and The Cher Show aims to bring that to the stage, detailing her life from her small-town upbringing and feeling like an outcast due to her mixed heritage, to finding success and later stardom in her partnership with Sonny Bono (played here by Lucas Rush), through multiple failures, comebacks, romantic ups and downs and a rollercoaster career that saw her knocked down many times and always getting back up again. The definition of a survivor and an icon, there really is only one Cher.
Except on stage that is, as The Cher Show offers up three leading ladies who all play different aspects of Cher at different stages in her career. The characters of Babe (60s Cher), Lady (70s Cher) and Star (80s Cher) each tell their own part of the journey, but also interact with each other throughout the show, with the older characters offering the younger selves advice from what they’ve learned; the younger selves often reminding the older self what she’s made of and how far she’s come.
Cher’s life and legacy of hits should create a knockout mix of camp fun and dramatic spectacle on the stage, but The Cher Show doesn’t quite dazzle as much as it should. Direction by Arlene Phillips is solid enough but never really lets the piece ignite, keeping the pace fairly leisurely throughout and running about 15 minutes too long. Tom Rogers’ set design is disappointingly simple, with the stage framed in racks of hanging clothes in grey garment bags, simple bits of furniture being wheeled on and off, and an overreliance on ladder scaffolding. Gabriella Slade’s costumes reflect the different eras of the three Chers well but are less successful when it comes to the ensemble, most of whom wear very similar outfits for the full duration of the show. This starts to make them almost invisible after a while, which is a shame as the impact of Oti Mabuse’s choreography is lost as the dancers fade into the rather dull background.
Taking on a character as bold and individual as Cher is no easy task and one that falls far too easily into parody. The performances here are mostly successful, with Danielle Steers excelling as Lady, showing off her divine sultry voice in We All Sleep Alone and Bang Bang, and keeping her Cher full of sass rather than spoof. Samantha Ivey is also great as Star, stepping in for Debbie Kurup and giving a performance which fully masked that it was her debut in the role. Ivey gives full belt to mega-ballads The Way Of Love and You Haven’t Seen The Last Of Me and does a fantastic job. Millie O’Connell as Babe is, unfortunately, less enjoyable to watch, stepping too far into cartoonish caricature despite strong vocals and dance moves. O’Connell’s is the only performance that feels like a tribute act rather than a layered character, and her book scenes do feel the weakest of the three.
Most of Cher’s biggest hits appear (although most are shortened to less than a minute in order to pack more in), as well as a few random choices which could’ve been cut with no detriment to the plot, although some thought has gone into their placement within the story, unlike other jukebox and bio-musicals. The show is lacking in the high points of camp spectacle that you’d expect from Cher’s music, with most numbers staying in second gear rather than going full throttle. This changes when it gets to the megamix finale, which is a boombastic thumping dance party and the stage finally comes to life, and the show manages to convince the audience that they had a better time than they perhaps did. It’s a glimpse of what the show could’ve been rather than a reminder of what it is, and definitely needs more of this kind of energy.
While far from the worst of these bio-musicals, The Cher Show doesn’t quite live up to the fabulousness of its inspiration, though it does get points for its inventive approach of splitting up its leading lady into different eras, and Cher’s songs sound great with some stellar vocals from Steers. It’s just a shame that the original “Dark Lady” deserves slightly better.
Runs Until 13 August 2022 and on tour