NEW YORK — Let me say right up front that I always, always got Cher but never, ever got Sonny. So “The Cher Show” let me down. This glitzy, tedious and unabashedly worshipful Broadway retrospective of a brashly her-own-person sort of talent doesn’t do much to clear up the mystery of why Cher fell for so long under the spell of a control freak who came across so abrasively weaselly.
If that were all that was missing from “The Cher Show,” which had its official opening Monday night at the Neil Simon Theatre, it still might have been a recommendable hoot. (I am talking now to those who don’t go gaga every time Cher executes her signature roll of the tongue or sports a seat belt as formal wear or shouts “Snap out of it.” No matter what the notices say, you all will be in heaven.)
For confirmation, I asked my Cher-admiring wife at intermission, “Is it so bad that it’s good?” “No,” she replied. This jukebox musical — the latest in a burgeoning genre that will one day no doubt run out its streak with a tribute show to Milli Vanilli — is so devoid of insight that it takes some of its cliched pop lyrics for earnest commentary, on Cher’s rinse-and-repeat career of rise and fall and rise and fall and . . .
“Do you believe in life after love?” one of the show’s Chers sings, after another of Cher’s peculiar romances, in book writer Rick Ellice’s bland retelling, goes pffffft. Just as three actresses play Donna Summer in Broadway’s other current underwhelming divafest, “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” so do three performers portray Cher here. They’re identified as Babe, the youngest Cher (played by Micaela Diamond); Lady, the slightly less young one (Teal Wicks); and Star, the least young one (Stephanie J. Block). They carry off their assignments with superior skill, Block especially, singing all the songs you’d expect to hear in a Cher show (“I Got You, Babe,” “Half Breed,” “Believe”). And employing three Chers does have the advantage of always providing Cher with someone to talk to onstage.
But while Cher, in all her outrageously skimpy, Bob Mackie-outfitted glory, is a cheeky pop touchstone, her showbiz saga is standard issue. How many times will theater audiences fork over big bucks for this brand of fan bait? Discovered by Sonny when she was a mere 16, Cher grows comfy with the spotlight under his tutelage; lives a concert and recording life of severe ups and down; stars with Sonny on a hit TV variety show; leaves him after she realizes how controlling he is; turns to acting; wins an Oscar (for “Moonstruck”); et cetera, et cetera and so on.
It’s a measure of how unevenly conceived “The Cher Show” is that Mackie — who designed the musical’s sequin-bedazzled racks of schmattes — also appears as a character and, as played by Michael Berresse, even sings! But Chaz Bono, her child with Sonny, does not. Well, Chaz turns up as an infant in swaddling blankets, as does Elijah Blue Allman, Cher’s son with rocker Gregg Allman. It’s as if Chaz’s life has no bearing on Cher’s.
Mackie’s sequin-drenched creations, tacky to the max, make the appropriate splashes in this oddly pasted-together evening; apparently suffering from imaginative exhaustion, director Jason Moore and the rest of the creative team simply turn the stage over to Mackie at one point for a fashion show. For a more bizarre what-was-that? moment, though, wait for Lucille Ball (Emily Skinner, in a cartoonish impersonation) to walk on for a superfluous sidebar on how tough women survive in the entertainment business.
Sonny is played by Jarrod Spector, who nails the whiny singing voice and the coldness. But the real Sonny would have killed for Spector’s abs. As it happens, these aren’t even the best abdominals in “The Cher Show”: Some of the male dancers look almost comically buff, as if choreographer Christopher Gattelli had posted a casting notice on a Chippendales Instagram account. His dance sequences mimic the garden variety, pumped-up style of Broadway choreography these days, although there is a standout display of acrobatic prowess by Ashley Blair Fitzgerald during the “Dark Lady” sequence.
Cher adoration seems to be a national pastime right now. On Sunday, a celebration of her life and times unfolded as the finale of the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony. The Honors handles the celebrity-reverence thing well. A more fitting Broadway gift to Cher’s audience would have been a musical as dynamically irreverent as she is.
The Cher Show, book by Rick Elice. Directed by Jason Moore. Choreography, Christopher Gattelli; costumes, Bob Mackie; orchestrations, Daryl Waters; sets, Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis; lighting, Kevin Adams; hair and wigs, Charles G. LaPointe; sound, Nevin Steinberg; video and projections, Darrel Maloney; music direction, Andrew Resnick. With Michael Campayno, Matthew Hydzik. About 2½ hours. $59-$250. At the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., New York. Ticketmaster.com. 877-250-2929.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified actress Teal Wicks as Teal Weeks.