After six decades of a career encompassing pop and film stardom, political activism and television success, it was a no-brainer that the life of Cherilyn Sarkasian, aka Cher, would eventually make the transition to a stage musical. Now, the 2018 Broadway show (with a significant overhaul courtesy of Leicester Curve Theatre) lands at Opera House in Manchester to a rapturous reception on press night.
The audience here is knowledgeable and primed (unlike at Sunderland Empire, where people left the theatre when they realised it wasn’t Cher performing!) and they were not to be disappointed in the depth of detail with which the show represents her early life. Cher has long been a spokesperson for LGBTQ+ rights and her story of early marginalisation, mistreatment and oppression is a story that finds a sympathetic ear in Manchester this evening. We meet Cher in three separate iterations; Baby (Millie O’Connell), Lady (Danielle Steers) and Star (Debbie Kurup), taking us from shy ingenue to glitter soaked megastardom. It was interesting that in a popular musical, writer Rick Elice chose not to utilise a simple linear story structure but had all three versions constantly interacting with each other throughout, adding depth and humour to the narrative. It was this playful format that elicited some of the best moments and lifted it from merely being a procession of musical hits.
We see Babe from a small child influenced by her mother (Tori Scott) who is ostensibly independent and yet constantly chasing domestic happiness, and then observe Cher sadly play out the same story in her own life. Her crucial meeting with Sonny Bono (an uncannily accurate portrayal by Lucas Rush) at only 16 years old was formative, with the innocence of Babe is beautifully juxtaposed against his cynical exploitation of her. The first act builds to a climax with all three on stage lamenting the split with Sonny (Song for the Lonely) and the burgeoning independence of Cher promises much in her character development. Unfortunately, the Second Act did not match up in terms of content, moving firmly into jukebox musical territory which engages the audience but left me cold after such an interesting opening. A series of interchangeable torch songs lamenting lost love were shoehorned into the structure, with only a passing link to the story they were trying to illustrate. By the conclusion all the wit and inventiveness was buried in an avalanche of disco lights and sequins.
The performances were uniformly excellent, O’Connell and Kurup brought accuracy to the differing vocals of Cher at the beginning and climax of her career, each one accurate in their interpretation as she matured as a performer. Steers was outstanding in her portrayal adding reflective nuance to the powerhouse showstopper we know. Well supported by Sam Ferriday (in a variety of roles, I loved his Phil Spector) and Jake Mitchell as the inspirational Bob Mackie, adding in an ensemble (in the most outrageous leather sailor suits throughout) with verve and vigour, this show undeniably looked great. Choreography courtesy of Oti Mabuse and Direction by Arlene Phillips always meant that this show would have more than a nod to ‘Strictly’ glitz and the dance routines were flawlessly executed. The contrast between the grey backstage set design, (Tom Rogers) with costumes and wigs visible on mannequin heads and hangars, and the sequin laden costumes (Gabriella Slade) was well drawn, serving to highlight the difference between Cher: The Woman and Cher: The Performer cleverly.
Undoubtedly, Cher fans will love this show, all the hits are here and managing to feature 35 songs in its 130-minute runtime is no mean feat and however repetitive I found it, the audience reaction during the elongated finale is testament to its undeniable popularity. For those of us beyond the confines of the fandom, it missed the opportunity to build on a promising opening and fell into safe and easy territory by the conclusion.
Playing until 21st May, https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-cher-show/opera-house-manchester/
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 17th May 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★