Let’s go! The Cher Show rewinds, reflects and rejoices in the knowledge that the beat goes on and Cher is strong enough to go on with it.
Lights flash and spin. A troupe of fierce dancers wearing black sailor suits covered in rhinestones executes a high-energy routine. Suddenly, everything comes to a standstill. The star is missing. Where’s Cher?
The icon is hiding in her dressing room, plagued by doubts. She is in three minds as to whether to make her latest comeback, having summoned her two past selves for therapy in triple time. Cher-apy for this diva.
Everyone knows Cher’s songs, but with six decades of stardom to track you might not know her backstory. The Cher Show (a refreshed incarnation of the Tony award-winning production that debuted on Broadway in 2018) combines familiar songs with a zippy, witty narrative for an entertaining and empowering musical.
This is not a tribute show. This is a star-splitting musical that sees three triple-threat performers represent Cher during different eras. Characters Babe, Lady and Star share the stage and turn back time.
Babe (Millie O’Connell) takes us through Cher’s formative years as a wide-eyed, lovestruck dreamer during the 1950s and 60s. She is bullied at school for her jet-black hair and olive skin (courtesy of her absent father’s Armenian heritage) and feels like an outsider. Insecure, incredibly shy and struggling with dyslexia, she is inspired to dream big by an encouraging Disney tune and her mum, Georgia (Tori Scott), who affirms that “the song makes you strong”. This is the Cher who leaves home at sixteen to pursue a showbiz career and falls for Sonny Bono (Lucas Rush) while working as a backing singer.
As an entertainer twelve years her senior, Sonny was full of the confidence Cher lacked. They got together personally and professionally – marrying and then finding fame on Top of the Pops by singing ‘I Got You Babe’ to each other. In The Cher Show, Babe is watched over by her older selves as her sweet relationship with Sonny sours: he uses her dyslexia to cheat her out of money and becomes consumed by ambition.
Millie O’Connell delivers pitch-perfect, tangibly timid vocals and brilliant body language as Babe. She drops her chin and peers out from beneath a heavy, blunt fringe with big, vulnerable eyes. Shoulders slump, long hair and limbs swing, feet and hands fidget. Everything reads as gangly, awkward, restless and ready for greatness. Her performance conveys the shyness and anxiety of this era’s innocent Cher. A naïve optimist who relies on having her husband standing by her side on stage and leading the way in the male-dominated music industry.
Lady (Danielle Steers) takes us through Cher’s mid-career years as an adored, but overworked, recording artist and television personality during the 1970s. She is exhausted, barely sees her firstborn (referred to only as “Chaz”, rendered as a pram pushed by all three Chers in turn) and her marriage to Sonny is not as it appears to the public. This is the Cher who gains the confidence to say no – to start directing her own show.
Danielle Steers brings scene-stealing sass and deadpan humour as Lady. She adds attitude to the hair flick and pulls off the aloof, impassive look. Her incredible vocals rumble low, loud and proud. This era’s confident Cher has enjoyed success, been knocked down and got up again. She is bolder and strong enough to go it alone.
Star (Samantha Ivey) takes us through Cher’s superstar years as a hit on Broadway and in Hollywood during the 1980s and 90s. She is a seasoned performer, who is recognised as an award-winning actress for her role in Moonstruck and finds newfound success as a singer with ‘Believe’.
Samantha Ivey (understudy Star on press night) steps up and shines brightly as Star. She is comfortable in her own skin – whether revealing emotion or being assertive – and rocks big hair. Her impressive voice belts out huge songs with a throaty confidence and she wryly comments on the decisions made by the younger Chers, knowing full well how things turn out. This Cher is a warrior. A pop goddess and an empowered woman. She falters, like everyone does. But she knows that remembering how, and why, she got to where she is will help her believe in her own power and purpose again.
The Chers interact throughout the entire show, rather than replacing each other along the journey. This works surprisingly well and proves that Cher is too much of a legend to be played by one person. While the Cher that is living in the current moment is centre stage, the other two pose or perch nearby and provide emotional support, wisecracks and extra vocals. They work together as a chorus, revealing Cher’s thoughts and motivations. Together, their unique performances encapsulate Cher’s growth as a woman as well as her evolution as an artist.
The passing of time is well paced. Each year is announced in innovative ways – written on cinema seats, formed by glitter-backed mirrors or numerical balloons, incorporated into the name of a bar. Director Arlene Phillips ensures slick transitions and effective use of space for momentum through movement.
Choreographer Oti Mabuse ensures the dancing suits each setting and excites with a modern twist. Simply replicating concert choreography would fall flat in a musical. Instead, the dancing in The Cher Show is plentiful and influenced by a variety of styles, underpinned by Oti’s signature strong shapes and grounded energy. Cher’s entourage flows through routines inspired by commercial, jazz, Latin, tap and line dancing. Hips roll, arms swoop, feathers flutter. There are high kicks, multiple turns, jumps, lifts and flips. The entourage can move! And so can Bob Mackie (Jake Mitchell): this embodiment of the costume designer knows how to cut shapes on the dance floor as well as in the wardrobe department.
The stage is bordered by towers of clothes rails and sky-high shelving units housing rows of wigs, which gives the impression of an industrial wardrobe. These remain throughout, as props and clever lighting propel the action from monochrome backstage debriefs to colourful on-stage displays. Gabriella Slade’s costumes slay, although dramatic headgear doesn’t feature until the finale, when the Chers showcase the glitziest gladiatorial get-up.
The show is less a tell-all biopic and more The Cher Show as Cher would likely be happy to share it with us. That is tricky to say; sometimes just the title feels like a tongue twister. Also, some of the songs are remixed from danceable to dramatic, or simply cut short (understandably so, to fit them all in).
Believe me though, the warrior energy, witty quips and megamix finale stamp out any possible criticism of this new musical. You’ll be up on your feet with a shoop shoop and a whoop whoop, then bounce out believing you can take on anything!
*Production photography by Pamela Raith.
The Cher Show continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 13 August 2022. The UK tour continues until 18 March 2023.
This review is also featured on Total MK.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.