The essence of “The Cher Show” on Broadway isn’t really the story of the famed entertainer’s life, as narrated by the three women who play her. Its soul is in the style, starting with the voice — that deadpan sneer, wisecracking her understated one-liners. It’s the voice of a hipster chronically ditching school, and then growing up to belt survival anthems with one-of-a-kind “a” and “o” vowel slurs. Leave it to Cher to rock a diphthong.
This jukebox musical’s raison d’etre, really, is in the comic nasal honk of Jarrod Spector as Sonny Bono. Its highest purpose lies in a costume collection so fabulous that eventually everything has to simply stop to make way for a parade of Bob Mackie outfits.
These idiosyncratic, fashionable elements persuasively whispering Cher matter far more than whether the show’s narrative framework will make Aristotle wake up and notice. Does that mean “The Cher Show” is good? On the whole, nope: You’ve seen stars rise and fall the same way too many times. But more than any other genre in theater, jukebox musicals elbow aside the usual theatrical concerns — plot, character, narrative — as they reach (or lunge) for a different set of showbiz goals.
For bored or outraged critics, jukebox musicals are Broadway’s most cynical money-grabbers, mainly good for offering reviewers the chance to see who can gag the loudest. The critiques are legit: Too many jukebox projects are pale, confused imitations. Since “Mamma Mia!” cracked the code, the easiest thing is to say yes to a title or catalogue that has worked before. It’s lazy.
The flops — from the Earth Wind & Fire bomb “Hot Feet” more than a decade ago, to the Jimmy Buffet “Escape to Margaritaville” last season — seem to outnumber the hits, yet jukebox musicals just keep coming. Tina Turner, Michael Jackson and Alanis Morissette shows are in advanced stages of evolution (as is the hits-driven “Moulin Rouge”), and Broadway is just one facet of a phenomenon that saturates U.S. theater. Baltimore’s Center Stage recently premiered a Bob Marley musical and “Soul: The Stax Musical,” about the famed Memphis recording studio. Marvin Gaye and Meatloaf shows are on the menu at Washington’s National Theatre, and Alexandria’s small MetroStage makes a living on shows about mid-20th-century jazz and blues icons.
The omnipresence suggests a cultural hunger, and audiences aren’t wrong to sniff out the possibility of pleasure. They know that jukebox shows guarantee songs with proven muscle, and in projects such as “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” they just might spawn a stage full of dancers in thrilling motion.
Sampling “Cher” and other shows recently making the rounds — “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” “A Sign of the Times,” “Head Over Heels” — only the Go-Go’s confection, “Head Over Heels,” displayed real storytelling verve. But they all tap into a nostalgia not just for old radio staples, but also for a Broadway in tune with the performer-driven essence of showbiz.
Writing a bio-musical that doesn’t sugarcoat the truth or resort to formulas is hard, and you can feel the pressure as both “The Cher Show” and “Summer” take an unexpected page from Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women,” with three actresses playing the title characters at different ages. The gambit doesn’t work in either case. “The Cher Show” has a book by Rick Elice — whose “Jersey Boys” remains a jukebox high point because its subjects entertainingly disputed the facts — yet it boils down Cher’s life to a “Behind the Music” cliche. Girl gets fame, hits the skids, somehow survives — it’s as rote as you fear.
Still, Stephanie J. Block, Teal Wicks and Micaela Diamond cock their hips and sneer the sneers, rocking the hip-hugging bell-bottoms, strutting and hair-tossing among the sublime shimmer of the 1960s-’70s TV shows. It’s a lot of sequins in your eyes, and almost enough personality to give audiences a rock-star performance — if only it were funneled through one lightning performer, not divided by three.
The 90-minute “Summer,” which closed in December after nine months on Broadway and is headed for a national tour, feels a lot like “Ain’t Too Proud,” at the Kennedy Center in the summer and opening on Broadway this spring. Behold: “Summer” and “Ain’t Too Proud” are both directed by Des McAnuff and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, and molded by the same team of designers.
These guys keep things moving almost too fast — the “Summer” story’s a blur, racking up major deductions for biographical reductions — but they do pay attention to one of the main things we want: the sound. You recall that hypnotizing Giorgio Moroder synthesizer riff from “I Feel Love,” and Summer’s voice ethereally crooning the phrase over and over (“Oooh, I feel love, I feel love, I feel love . . .”). Now picture a stage of glossy dancers amplifying the rhythm. The re-creation of disco’s dark power is really, really good.
Standing atop an executive desk and wearing an immaculate cobalt blue suit, the actress LaChanze, as the senior Donna, belted out the anthemic “She Works Hard for the Money,” and it was a showstopper. The giddy escapism of confetti and swirling lights to “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance” — that’s why we’re here. But “Summer” fades. You wonder what kind of deliriously entertaining show might have evolved by going all in with music and the stage presence of the headliner, ignoring the false shorthand of the bio-formula, not watering Donna down into three smaller portions.
Trying to glue a song catalogue to an original story, like the goofy “Mamma Mia!” or Twyla Tharp’s daring Billy Joel dance drama “Movin’ Out,” is even more fraught with formulaic pitfalls, although breakthroughs happen: The Washington Post’s Peter Marks rated Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s Bob Dylan project “Girl From the North Country” as last year’s best musical. With “A Sign of the Times,” longtime showbiz writer and former Hollywood Square Bruce Vilanch fashions a new scenario for 1960s tunes, with a story created by Richard J. Robin. It’s serious-minded and over-literal, dropping a feminist awakening story atop radio hits by the likes of Petula Clark, the Monkees and Nancy Sinatra.
It’s a kick to hear that middle-of-the-road 1960s pop sound, with catchy rock beats rising to big brassy choruses. The band at the Delaware Theatre Company, where the show was recently staged, sounded great, and an intriguing storytelling spell emerged as the Ohio-raised heroine discovered Manhattan’s hipsters in an extended sequence (with dancing!) written around Clark’s 1965 hit “I Know a Place.”
But introducing “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” with construction workers catcalling women who sass back with Nancy Sinatra’s snotty hit is as dull as using “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)” for the scene about budding romance. And “You Don’t Own Me” is too rooted in “First Wives’ Club” to click as the emotional climax for a too-long, too-much-social-history-on-top-of-romantic-triangle-stuff saga.
Far more saucy and fun is the poetic-punk Go-Go’s musical “Head Over Heels.” The show’s wonderfully weird premise grafts Sir Philip Sidney’s Renaissance poem “Arcadia” — no foolin’ — onto tunes such as “Automatic Rainy Day,” when two gloomy girls sing their lovelorn hearts out, and “Vision of Nowness” as a gender-fluid oracle directs the action.
The silhouetted lovers of “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” hit familiar tropes of love and woke gender politics in a fresh way. The Renaissance-1980s girl group mash-up — kinetically powered, naturally, by a four-woman rock band — nicely aligned in terms of wit, rebel yell and century-hopping sex appeal. The cast was gleefully activated by the mix.
You can’t picture your local theaters tackling the machine-tooled showbiz epics “Cher Show” or “Summer,” but “Head Over Heels” is manageable, and its puckish spark is appealing. How can you not fall at least a little for a comedy featuring a punchline about actors who died of malnutrition because their theater culture lacked seriousness? This, coming from a Go-Go’s musical?
Inscribed above the proscenium arch in the recently closed Broadway production were the words “Habemus Percussio” — a.k.a. We Got the Beat. Full points for ingenuity, for syncing up its disparate influences and walking its own walk.
The critics aren’t wrong: We really do want that crisp, new snap. But Broadway has deep roots in vaudeville — no story, just acts — so audiences are right: We’ll always crave performances that revel in that singing, dancing beat.