Attending The Cher Show on Broadway, as a heterosexual male, I felt a bit like Alvy Singer sitting at Grammy Hall’s all-WASP dinner table in Annie Hall. Sixty-plus ladies with a lot of mai tais in them made up the bulk of the audience, together with a smattering of their confirmed-bachelor friends. Two such fellows arrived ten minutes late, well after the show had begun. “Oh my God!” screamed the lead actress from center stage. “You queens just missed a really good opening number!” The house broke up. At intermission, the line for the men’s room was brief. The line for the ladies’ stretched across the lobby, up the stairs, out the door, and up to the Bronx. In the second act, after the audience had restored itself with a sweet frozen drink called “Gypsies, Tramps, and Freeze,” there was so much woo-hooing I might as well have been at Chippendale’s.
Oh, how was the show? Not terrible. Not King Kong, the lumbering giant-puppet musical that is still playing around the corner. Good songs are the main thing when it comes to a musical, and Cherilyn Sarkisian sang a few of them. Did you know she sang backup on the Ronettes’ single “Be My Baby”? I didn’t. Respect for the lady: In a land of short memories, she managed to hit the pop-culture bull’s-eye in four consecutive decades, in three mediums. Or four, if you count the diva industry, and you probably should.
The Cher Show stars three actresses playing the star at different ages, the three of them sharing badinage, advice, and rue in a sort of sequins-and-disco-balls rethink of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Stephanie J. Block plays Cher in glorious maturity, Teal Wicks the 1970s iteration, and Micaela Diamond the tyro performer. All of them are colossal belters, and Block, with her ghastly drawn-on eyebrows and Louis XVI wig, appropriately seems like a female impersonator.
Yet — wouldn’t you know it? — all three actresses are outdone by the guy who plays Sonny Bono, Jarrod Spector. Bono willed the pair to success, overworked his wife, fathered an unseen person of indeterminate gender called “Chaz” (though I seem to recall she was known as “Chastity” at the time), and cut Cher out of some business dealings. Yet he radiated so much goofy appeal that, long after they had divorced, his ex-wife eulogized him upon his death by accident in 1998. In the show, they have a warm chat that transcends the grave. “Stupid tree, I forgot to duck,” he says. “How short was that tree?” she asks. Spector’s determined-geek performance reminds me of the demented focus of a Jason Schwartzman character. “I want to be famous by the time I’m 30,” he says. “Thirty?” she replies. “I want to be famous while I’m still young.”
Sonny’s presence coincides with the show’s best moments. It was his idea to put his wife in heels so she would appear much taller than he when they did the 1970s variety series The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, a top-ten hit in which he was the target of a nonstop volley of Vegas-style jokes. (Some were written by Steve Martin, a staff writer.) She would wear sequins, he would sally forth as Napoleon. At the end of the show, they’d always sing “I Got You Babe.” Every time. The same song, again and again. Maybe there’s a movie idea in here somewhere . . .
When Sonny isn’t around, though, the show frequently makes the mistake of taking itself seriously. Cue loads of the sort of yass-queen goop that (as The Spectator columnist Lara Prendergast has noted) has taken the place of self-help rubbish. Why do female-empowerment clichés always seem an inch away from self-pity? Nobody wants to see Cher bemoaning her hard luck. Though it is pretty funny that when she made an impressive debut as a serious actress, in the 1983 film Silkwood, audiences burst into laughter when the title “Meryl Streep” was followed by “Cher.”
The earnestness that takes over in the second act is a bit hard to take; let’s not oversell the importance of someone best known for her spangled bat wings and furry headdresses. This is the first Broadway musical I’ve ever seen that was stopped by applause for costumes (Bob Mackie’s demented-showgirl concoctions, a selection of which get trotted out in mid-show). While it’s disarming of Cher, who is one of the producers of the show, to remind us of all the times she went broke — half a decade after winning an Oscar, she finds herself starring in infomercials — if you made as much money as she has and somehow lost it all, your problem is spending, not the cruelties of showbiz.