As a fan of Cher’s distinctive contralto voice, her status as an LGBTQ+ ally and her drive to make it to the top as a solo female artist, I was excited to learn more about this Californian diva, this feminist icon. The pounding, techno opening, with pulsing lights and powerful ensemble dancing to strong drum beats promises an evening of strength, exhilaration and vivacity as we are introduced to our three Chers: Babe (Millie O’Connell), Lady (Danielle Steers) and Star (Debbie Kurup). Waiting in her dressing room before a comeback performance, Star tells her younger selves that she is looking for her “goddess warrior”, something she feels she has lost. If only she could look back on her monumental rise to the top – if only she could turn back time…oh wait…
Unfortunately, for this reviewer, what is promised by the opening, is not consistently delivered and I leave the theatre with the feeling that this show doesn’t really know what it is. It is in essence a jukebox production filled with 35 of Cher’s greatest hits (with at least one noticeable absence, but more on that later), but there isn’t enough “story” for me for it to be a musical, and there is too much exposition for it to be a concert. Maybe it’s a musical biopic? I’m having to do some diligent internet research to find the answers to the burning questions I’m left with on leaving the auditorium. Mainly, the biographical element glosses over the raw emotional parts of Cher’s life, and focuses more on the surface and because of this, I find it difficult to form an emotional attachment to the Chers.
All of the Chers give it their absolute all in this performance. The first half of Act 1 focuses on Cher up until the 1970s with O’Connell taking the lead. She presents a naïve and hopeful Cher who finds love at a young age, is incredibly shy and relies on her husband, Sonny Bono (Lucas Rush) to lead and support her. Lady sees us through the 1970s, and the second part of Act 1. Steer shows a more mature and questioning Cher. The contrast between Sonny and Cher’s relationship on camera and off camera is portrayed well in this section with both actors switching persona with split second precision. Cher realising that Sonny has been lying to her about money, and using her dyslexia as a way to cheat her out of what is rightfully hers marks the end of Act 1, but there is little emotional punch. It’s well known that Cher’s relationship with Sonny was turbulent, but this is merely referenced rather than explored. We are told that Cher was suicidal during this time in her life, but again, this is glossed over. As the curtain falls on Act 1, this reviewer finds herself hoping that Act 1 is more of a prequel to the real story as Star prepares to take the lead.
Kurup takes the reins for the entirety of Act 2 and sees the audience through from 1980 to present day. It’s Star by name and star by nature as Kurup shines bright on the stage; she has excellent chemistry with Sam Ferriday who plays Cher’s second husband Greg Allman, and you can feel the sexual tension between them. Her exchange with a now deceased Sonny is the only point in the performance that causes an emotional response. She is an absolute powerhouse of a singer with “The Way of Love” being a real highlight of the show. Cher goes through ups and downs in the 80s and 90s with another lost love, an Academy Award under her belt and, at her lowest performance point, infomercials for hairspray, and Kurup portrays this with sensitivity and heart.
The interplay between the three Chers is a highlight and is particularly effective when Lady is the lead Cher as she calls on the optimism of Babe and the wisdom of Star. All three Chers singing melody together is also a real crowd pleaser and I’m sure Cher fans everywhere will appreciate this production for it’s pure nostalgia alone.
And now for the dancing! This is a real strength of the show which is to be expected given that the show is directed by Arlene Phillips and choreographed by Oti Mabuse. Every move is punctuated with energy and zazz, and the sheer variety of styles showcases the talent of the ensemble. From country and western to tap, this show has all the upbeat dances from the Strictly back catalogue, and it’s joyous to watch…except for the finale which creeps up without warning and is somewhat underwhelming, especially given the drive and verve of the dances that preceded it. As an audience member and reviewer I admit to being a little shocked when the ensemble begin the bows. The finale mash up of songs seemingly lacks enthusiasm but it’s even more disappointing because one of Cher’s most well-known songs only materialises as a short instrumental as the cast exit the stage. Where was “If I Could Turn Back Time”? Cue astonished and questioning looks from the audience as the houselights come up and the realisation hits that it’s not going to happen. Some audience members who previously were appreciative of what they had watched, who were on their feet dancing to the finale, leave dissatisfied with this omission.
Three elements which are completely satisfying in this production though are costume design by Gabriella Slade, set design by Tom Rogers and lighting design by Ben Cracknell. This trio work incredibly well together to create something very exciting. The set has no less than 48 of Cher’s famous wigs on display and there must be more than 500 dress bags representing Cher’s vast wardrobe. The scene transitions are slick and this reviewer particularly enjoys the imaginative ways of showing the passing of time. The fully sequinned stage at the end of the show is reminiscent of a showy and elaborate Las Vegas extravaganza. The costumes are nostalgic and perfectly represent the different periods of Cher’s life, as well as the different fashion eras. With some quick costume changes, one can only imagine the hustle and bustle backstage (and the carpet of sequin and rhinestone in the costume department). Finally, the lighting has been expertly fashioned to complement the set, costumes, singing and dancing with particularly effective use of spot, especially when highlighting the strength or vulnerability of the Chers.
Where The Cher Show is thin in story, it is big in sequin and spectacle. It charts the life of Cher from hopeful to hopeless to a diva queen who certainly finds her warrior goddess. The dancing audience at the end show that there were many in the audience who have had a thoroughly good time watching this production. For myself though, The Cher Show doesn’t quite hit the mark, but it has the potentially to be “Strong Enough” with more focus on the story to match the spectacle.
The Cher Show is starting its European tour at Leicester’s Curve theatre, and will be playing until Saturday 23 April.