Cher and Cher Alike

Jess Barbagallo on The Cher Show

The cast of The Cher Show on Broadway. Photo: Joan Marcus.

IT WAS EITHER SCOTT’S IDEA, or Maddie’s idea. Or it was Dave’s idea, but then Dave couldn’t come. He’d already seen it anyway and told me that it was like nothing that should be allowed onstage, but there it was. We gave his ticket to Jennifer, and the four of us made our way to the Neil Simon Theater to see The Cher Show, which—playing right across the way from Mean Girls—made a neat little homo alley out of Fifty-Second Street.

Sitting way up in the $69 “cheap seats” on an undersold Wednesday night, I marveled at how beat up the stage floor was. This is Broadway, I thought, those words hovering somewhere between a question and an answer. The theater begged for a renovation; its shabbiness made the place feel like an overblown simulacrum of a small town gay bar backroom. I couldn’t figure out if the producers were geniuses, or just a suburban expat cadre happy to make a buck by putting a jukebox musical in any available theater. But as a smart choreographer once told me, quoting Balanchine: “There are no mother-in-laws in dance.” Meaning: Get rid of the intricate logics. My own maxim for the night: Don’t bother deconstructing Cher.

The show kicked-off with “If I Could Turn Back Time,” and instantly launched the crowd into the nostalgia fest. This is the story of three Chers: In the program they’re named Star (Stephanie J. Block), Lady (Teal Wicks), and Babe (Micaela Diamond). Star Cher is the real reason for the season. I’d be happy to sip a dozen mimosas with Stephanie J. Block (although I really did swear them off after a decade in the service industry). Block is doing a spot-on impression of the Cher impression performed by drag queens all across this country. Her performance is almost as much an homage to those queens as it is to the titular one. So convincing was her swagger, I couldn’t be sure if she was ad-libbing or following the script when she forgave some “late bitches” who arrived in the middle of the opening number. But I was excited to believe a commercial production could hold the space to trust its lead to throw a little shade off-book.

The three Chers are the means of taking us through her evolution from neophyte to woman to icon. Together they explained that at times they might be “pitchy,” but weren’t there for vocal technique. The conceit is basic and felt to me like the ideal cover-up for the practical matters of diva labor, giving each plenty of time to make their countless costume changes. (I desperately wanted to get a backstage peek at the dresser-performer choreography). Then there was the matter of the actresses’ age changes. Sure, it’s mildly grotesque to watch Babe riding a bicycle across the stage to indicate “Cher as a child”—like the inverse of Bette Davis wearing all that pancake makeup in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? —but what made it so gross? The matter of age is always a problem inside the cult of youth, I guess.

Stephanie J. Block as Star in The Cher Show on Broadway. Photo: Joan Marcus.

As “Cher as a child,” Babe comes home to tell her blond mother that she is being bullied for having darker skin and hair than her classmates. They call her “half breed”—Cher’s father was Armenian—and within the genre of musical theater this of course becomes the rallying cry for an insecurity that must be overcome so that Cher can reach greater heights. The lyrics to “Half Breed” were edited here to soften the native drag fantasy of the original number, first verse excised and the tempo slowed to ballad speed. I don’t know if the way truth gets softened and repackaged in this American technicolor extravaganza is ethically sound, but when I whispered to my companions that night, “are those the actual words?” they were too busy singing along to hear me. (Except for Maddie, the lone twentysomething in our cohort, who whispered back, “I don’t know this song.”)

Fast forward: Cher’s left home. She meets Sonny Bono at a club and tells him she needs a place to stay. She knows how to sing. Babe (Cher, the shy girl) seduces Bono with help from Lady (Cher, the smooth woman) but what makes the scene really funny is what a bona fide nerd Bono was, albeit a gentleman (at least in their early days). They both have drive. She’s tall and he’s short. They laugh together. They have a hit song. They get married. They have Chaz.

The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour made myth of their marital bliss—ah, for the days of the variety show!—although of course the narrative gets a little dirty when we learn that Sonny’s put their business in his name, leaving Cher with no money and zilch rights to her own creative product after they divorce. But in the middle of their breakup, we’re treated to a full-blown fashion show of Cher’s iconic outfits courtesy of her great collaborative partner, Bob Mackie. The audience clapped for the clothes, yet somehow the number was more reminiscent of a high school talent show than of runway glitz—the temperature of the crowd, tourists and Jerseyites, more peacoat than Prada.

Teal Wicks as Lady, Stephanie J. Block as Star, Micaela Diamond as Babe and the cast of The Cher Show on Broadway. Photo: Joan Marcus.

In a subsequent scene, we’re introduced to Cher’s second husband, rocker Gregg Allman (Matthew Hydzik). I wasn’t a fan of his wig, courtesy of Charles G. LaPointe, but the women in my company seemed fairly smitten. (The sartorial lesson of Cher, and The Cher Show: Go big or go home). But I was really taken by how she managed Bono and Allman competing with each other for her attention. To a jealous Gregg she says, “I’m friends with my ex. That’s just how I roll!” There was no audible finger snapping in the audience, but I jumped in my seat at the welcome disruption of the heteronormative divorce narrative.

The rest of the show hit the plot points at lightning speed, glossing her falls and comebacks with equal parts syrup and snark. Highlights included a bizzaro keep-your-chin-up pep talk from Lucille Ball (true story!); ninety seconds of gravitas as Cher grappled with Epstein-Barr in the early ’90s; and her career-changing discovery of Auto-Tune. My favorite minor-major moment was post-Oscar Cher shooting an infomercial for hair spray to pay the bills, because that’s what has made her lovable for so many years: She lives under capitalism like the rest of us. Perhaps her endorsements in fact put her ahead of the curve—a proto-Kardashian figure. There’s no pretense to the story: Money is an emotional and decisive force in the course of a life. It takes us places the same way that art and love and music do. Two years ago, I couldn’t even afford a ticket to The Cher Show.

In my bedroom that night, I pulled up a music video of her 1987 Richie Sambora-penned power ballad “We All Sleep Alone.” This is the body-stocking’ed, big-haired rock star who I first fell in love with riding down the highway at dawn in my father’s van as we listened to adult contempo—who mesmerized me as a kid glued to VH1 and MTV, my primary sources of culture in barren upstate New York. Somehow these memories got me thinking about how you can be a longtime married person in the heart of Middle America, or queer and single-proud in the metropolis, and yet the most incredible power one ever experiences is that of being self-possessed. Or as Cher sang: “Nobody nowhere holds the key to your heart.” People love Cher because she has always used her difference to tease out the personal drama of otherness, one that is especially social and effervescent when worn like a sequined thong. Hovering near the merch table after the show, I felt twelve all over again, excited to maybe buy a T-shirt and imagine new versions of myself before I fell asleep.

The Cher Show is currently playing at The Neil Simon Theater in New York City.