Cher, like Whitney Houston, is an inimitable superstar. An icon. A legend. Few people should dare emulate her and you’d think few people could without parodying her. Well, the people behind The Cher Show – which is currently touring the UK after a hiatus and first being produced for Broadway – felt that in order to retell her story they of course need singers brave enough to try and do just that.
The Cher Show begins with the down in the dumps singer feeling lost and wanting to get her groove back on. The Goddess of Pop is then “visited” by two previous versions of herself (almost like the ghost of Cheristmas past and the ghost of even further Cheristmas past) who turn back time to her early life and career in a bid to rediscover her passion and her reason to keep going.
What follows is a bizarre, overly camp and to be honest, slightly laborious rehash of A Christmas Carol with a twist. Cher is portrayed by three actresses, “Babe” (who weirdly plays her from a schoolchild in the 50s through to her breakthrough as a singer and duo act with Sonny in the mid-60s), “Lady” (a more mature and jaded Cher from the late 60s through to the 70s), and “Star” (who we are introduced at the start and later takes us through the 80s and 90s). They all “confer” amongst each other, whisper in each other’s ear as one of them relives her time, and talk to the audience about what was going on in her life.
The Cher Show sings and dances its way through the ups and downs of Cher’s career as a singer and actress and her significant, tumultuous relationships with Sonny, Gregg Allman, Sonny, Rob Camilletti, and Sonny again. We get a peek inside her mental state as she laments about being controlled by men, ageing, being unable to spend enough time with her children, the peaks and troughs of her popularity, how her dyslexia hinders her, and her desire to make it big despite all of those concerns. There are also of course talks of her sense of style; her penchant for risqué and outrageous outfits, mostly thanks to her longtime costumer Bob Mackie, but zero reference to her penchant for plastic surgery.
If you don’t know much about the illustrious life of Cher, it is in fact quite an interesting one – and whose wouldn’t be when you’re her and have lived through seven decades? However, The Cher Show rushes through many different phases of her life in an attempt to get through it all – and yet it still misses quite a bit. It’s a little unclear when The Cher Show is set as her seemingly never-ending “farewell” tour is mentioned, which happened around the turn of the millennium and in the early 2000s but there are also constant references to her crazy tweeting habits, which have in recent years become a separate phenomenon in themselves.
As a fan of Cher and an admirer of how far she has come through the decades and her constant musical and style reinvention, I was excited to see what The Cher Show had to bring. What I saw however, left me feeling a bit torn. No doubt the three Chers, Millie O’Connell (“Babe”), Danielle Steers (“Lady”) and Debbie Kurup (“Star”) had certainly studied the star herself when it came to tone, vocal lines, nuances, mannerisms and delivery, but there was something missing. At times they did actually manage to sound extremely similar to Cher, which is definitely no mean feat considering just how recognisable and unique her voice is, though at the same time they often sounded way too caricaturistic. It was like watching three seasoned actresses and singers turn into cheesy cabaret performers you’re likely to find in a drag queen show. A good drag queen show but they seemed far from stage show level performances.
“Babe” in particular was consistently over-the-top, sounding spaced out and walking like a rag doll come to life. “Lady” had a fabulous voice that sometimes sounded far better and more soulful than Cher, but you were often too distracted by her flicking her hair back and forth every thirty seconds. “Star” went between sounding like her one minute then nothing like her the next. While all very accomplished (having appeared in Six, Rent, Bonnie & Clyde, The Prince of Egypt and The Bodyguard between them), taking on and becoming Cher is like Mission Impossible if you don’t want to sound as if you’re doing an SNL skit, dressing up for Halloween or doing karaoke. What’s more, Millie and Debbie‘s natural voices are nowhere near close to Cher’s (though Danielle does have quite a rich and deep voice), so it raises the question of just how demanding the songs are and what the constant voice-faking is doing or going to do to their vocal cords in the long run?
It is also interesting and worth noting that “Lady” and “Star” are played by mixed race actresses. It seems Cher has reached that level of “legendary” status where, like Jesus (sorry, not sorry if you think it’s blasphemous to say) she can be portrayed by anyone of any race or gender (see Chad Michaels and Paul Houldsworth who dragged up as Cher on Starstruck). One aspect of Cher’s life that most people would not focus on or might not know much about is her racial identity. The song Half-Breed talks of her being mixed race and how she faced racial prejudice as a child, despite “appearing” White to some, which on the scale of relatability to the role of Cher, both Danielle and Debbie fit into well.
When a prolific artist like Cher has such a huge catalogue of music under her belt, it’s hard to fit so many into a a 2-hour show. 35 hits were included in The Cher Show, ranging from her most famous solo songs, both popular and lesser known songs she did with Sonny, and a few other treasures most except hardcore fans might never have heard before. One of the most stirring performances was You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me, her most recent hit and favourite with fans, where all three Chers came together to uplift this inspirational song at a pivotal moment in the musical. However, some tracks that could have been included are her cover of Walking in Memphis (taken from It’s a Man’s World which was predominantly an album of covers of songs by male artists and would have fed into the feminist theme of the show), The Music’s No Good Without You (which would have been fitting when looking back at her relationship with Sonny), Love and Understanding, her debut solo song All I Really Want to Do and even the sultry Welcome to Burlesque from the film Burlesque.
The highlight of The Cher Show was its finale. No, not because it was ending, it wasn’t that bad! But because, Cher – all three versions of her – had finally found themselves and were ready to embrace the bad bitch Goddess she was at whatever age she was meant to be now. Ending the jukebox musical on a high note after quite a slow pace throughout, Cher was able to take to the stage in all her extravagant glory for the biggest hit of her career, Believe. It also included a mashup of Strong Enough, The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss) and Woman’s World (which Millie funnily enough sang using her real voice), the latter of which should have featured more considering the show’s many talks of feminism.
The night was rounded off with If I Could Turn Back Time, which you only hoped they wouldn’t do that again because when they did at the beginning it began a jarring, baffling experience. One where you didn’t know whether you were laughing awkwardly at the hit and miss Cher impressions or finding the short, clipped jokes and one-liners Cher was well-known for making genuinely hilarious.
With talent like the renowned Arlene Phillips as director and Oti Mabuse as choreographer as well as experienced costume and set designers, one would naturally have high hopes for a musical that celebrates one of the world’s most eccentric and unique celebrities. And while The Cher Show provides plenty of laughs, dazzles with its costumes and choreography and amazes with some great vocal moments, it falls short in several aforementioned ways. If any female superstar deserves to have a stage musical about her after Tina Turner (and Whitney and Aretha, when they get theirs), it’s Cher. But there needs to be clear lines drawn as to when and how you are going to accurately portray her and her life and not try so hard do so that you ultimately end up with three people looking and sounding like spoof versions of her. However, if the ageless Queen Cher herself approves, who are we mere mortals to say otherwise?