I remember the Mustangs. In 1966, a year after Sonny & Cher lobbed a grenade at the British invasion with “I Got You, Babe,” the long- and longer-haired duo were rewarded with a pair of customized Ford Mustangs (girly pink with red trim for her, manly gold with tobacco trim for him). The gaudy goodies were on the money, as both the singers and the cars were groomed for an irreverent, combusting cohort in the early throes of revolution. Peter, Paul & Mary never got matching muscle cars.
The Cher Show, which opened Dec. 3, is custom designed as well. As the title promises, it tells the story of one of the entertainment industry’s great survivors. Carved from six decades of pop-culture history, when Cherilyn Sarkisian rose to fame in music, television and film while creating an image, if not an art, that transcended them all, The Cher Show is the glittering, gilded-lily work of experts who excel at their craft: writer Rick Elice (Jersey Boys), director Jason Moore (Avenue Q) choreographer Christopher Gattelli (the current revival of My Fair Lady) and designer Bob Mackie (played here by Michael Berresse), whose ingenious, outrageous peekaboo clothes and fabulous headdresses, exuberantly on display here, were instrumental in Cher’s transformation from dippy hippie to singing rebel with a fashion cause.
The show is a spectacular showcase for the three actresses who track the leading lady from invisible youth (of course she was a shy, awkward girl) inspired by Disney’s Cinderella to Sonny Bono’s workhorse and Greg Allman’s brief crutch, to – okay, here it comes – mistress of her own fate and icon of, you know, agency. Leading them is Stephanie J. Block, who has labored long and hard in roles that might have made her a star (Falsettos, The Pirate Queen). She nails it as the grown Cher, narrating her life and performing through all of it with irresistible charm and swagger, a fine approximation of Cher’s glottal alto (“I’ll be fine as soon as I get over this cold,” it seems to say), and notwithstanding the flapping wings and preposterous headgear that would defeat a lesser actor negotiating complicated stage business while putting across “Bang Bang” as the fires of hell lick at her airborne limbs.
Every bit as appealing are Micaela Diamond, who plays Babe, the very young singer, and Teal Wicks as Lady, the sleek phenom (though all three will interact and play Cher at various periods in the story).
With Jersey Boys, Elice fine-tuned the biomusical by using the songs of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to track the personal triumphs and travails of each member of the group. The structure serves him well here, too. Block launches the show with “If I Could Turn Back Time” (“I can!” she avers) and soon is discovered by Bono (Jarrod Spector, as terrific as he was in Jersey Boys, morphing Valli’s falsetto into Sonny’s nasal, crystal shattering tenor). She was 16 when the 28-year-old Bono saw her as his ticket out of smoky lounges and into the recording studio, up the charts and into the stratosphere after he introduces her to producer Phil Spector (Michael Fatica). Cher’s mother (the wonderful Emily Skinner) is skeptical but supportive, always ready with a wise word or a wisecrack.
There’s a touch of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at play here as well. It’s a sharp sense of when to pause the non-stop delirium of Gattelli’s ferocious dances (including a dazzling ballet-Vegas mashup for “Dark Lady”) long enough for a bit of emotion to remind us that a mostly real story is unfolding. It happens when Cher pays an unexpected and heartfelt tribute to Sonny, despite the fact that he’s bilked and betrayed her.
Act II follows the breakup with Sonny, with some apparently real advice from Lucille Ball about moving on post-divorce. Robert Altman casts her in the terrible Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a flop both on Broadway and the big screen, but she rebounds with roles in Silkwood, Mask and Moonstruck, which won her an Oscar.
“Being famous makes everything just so much easier,” she says at one point, “like being a guy.”
The show is spectacular looking, thanks not only to a wildly impressive chorus but also to the kinetic sets by Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis and the equally varied, hyper-dramatic lighting by Kevin Adams. Nevin Steinberg is responsible for the clarion sound design. There are so many costumes – racks of them! – that they become characters as well. And homage must be paid to Charles G. LaPointe’s wigs in all their decades-marking variety.
The Cher Show is relievedly free of snark and wink, that tendency to hedge your bets with the audience by suggesting it’s all a riff and we’re in on the joke. It’s good-hearted hagiography and fun. If you’re a Cher fan, it will please you, and if you’re not, it won’t – but what the hell are you doing here, anyway? Either way, you will leave the theater a devotee of Block. She’s a mustang, and she roars.