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The Cher Show
Book by Rick Elice; directed by Jason Moore
Opened December 3, 2018
There are two paths for a jukebox musical. The first is to attach a threadbare plot to an artist’s songs, like Mamma Mia (Abba), We Will Rock You (Queen), Escape to Margaritaville (Jimmy Buffett) or Head Over Heels (Go-Gos); the second is to make a sort of autobiography, like Beautiful (Carole King) or On Your Feet (Gloria Estefan). The Cher Show takes the second tack, with a trio of Chers (a conceit also used by Summer, another autobiographical musical) interacting, either amusingly or enervatingly, as the superstar’s bio is dramatized from her California childhood to her hitting it big with Sonny and the ‘70s and ‘70s to her musical comeback in the late 80s and 90s.
Cher’s up-and-down career—which comprised hit songs and TV shows, flop recordings and bad movies and, finally, an Oscar (for Moonstruck)—has enough soap opera, melodrama, tragedy and triumph in it to overcome the story’s familiar showbiz clichés as awkward, shy Cherilyn Sarkisian becomes a global megastar (and “goddess warrior,” her own description), overcoming problematic relationships with Svengali/first husband, Sonny Bono, and second husband/drug addict Gregg Allman. Rick Elice’s book tiptoes around personal missteps by allowing Cher a bit of self-awareness as her alter egos—young Babe, mid-career Lady and icon Star—discuss them as they happen.
The most obvious thing to note about The Cher Show is Bob Mackie’s splendid costumes. If anyone doesn’t remember them from Cher’s many TV appearances at awards shows and her own variety series with and without Sonny, they were truly spectacular: big and billowy or small and slinky, often with sequins, headdresses or other frills, Mackie’s costumes were as readily identifiable as the performer herself.
Costumes aside, The Cher Show is saved by its Star, the sensationally good Stephanie J. Block, who not only exactly copies Cher’s vocal mannerisms when speaking and singing but even looks like her, at least more than the other two—newcomer Micaela Diamond as Babe and Teal Wicks as Lady—who can both belt out the songs and act but can’t channel Cher as impressively.
Jarrod Spector (Sonny) and Matthew Hydzik (Gregg) are fine, while Michael Berresse exudes joy as Bob Mackie and tartness as director Robert Altman. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography smartly combines slavish reenactment and bright originality, while there’s a welcome tongue-in-cheek cleverness to Kevin Adams’ lighting, Christine Jones’ and Brett J. Banackis’ sets and Darrel Maloney’s projections. Director Jason Moore rounds up all this disparate visual and aural splendor into something approaching entertainment.
And the songs? Happily, there’s only a sprinkling of the awful, overdramatic sub-Meatloaf comeback tunes like the eardrum-hurting (and auto-tune starter) “Believe” and “If I Could Turn Back Time,” while there are lots of Sonny & Cher hits (“I Got You Babe” and “The Beat Goes On”) and early solo smashes (“Half Breed,” “Dark Lady”—weirdly resurrected as a sing-off between Sonny and Gregg—and “Gypsies Tramps and Thieves”).
Not surprisingly, like its leading lady The Cher Show careens all over the place, but its target audience won’t care in the slightest.
Neil Simon Theater, 250 West 52nd Street, New York, NY
Blu-rays of the Week
This big-budget Russian armageddon flick by Fyodor Bondarchuk—son of renowned director Sergei Bondarchuk (who made the classic 7-hour War and Peace in 1966—is a supremely silly adventure, but it has a pretty good subject (are the arriving aliens malevolent or benevolent?) and a terrific young actress, Irina Starshenbaum, as a credible everywoman who falls in love with one of them.
Lots of CGI effects battle for supremacy with less interesting sequences involving blocs of survivors and their competing allegiances, but Bondarchuk keeps things moving briskly for 135 minutes. The hi-def image is spectacular; extras are several featurettes.
Boston Red Sox—2018 World Series Collector’s Edition
After the Boston Red Sox won 108 games in the regular season, then ran like a buzz saw through the Yankees and Astros—the latter looking to repeat as champs—in the AL playoffs, lots of skeptics thought they’d be beaten by the Dodgers in the World Series. But aside from that instant-classic 18-inning game which the Dodgers pulled out, the Sox had no problem winning it all for the fourth time since 2004.
This comprehensive eight-disc set contains all five WS games, the Division Series-winning game vs. New York and the ALCS-winning game against Houston. Hi-def video looks superb, and audio includes options for TV announcers, home and away radio and Spanish-language. The one-disc Blu-ray includes the official 2018 World Series film, and extras comprising regular and post-season highlights and footage from the Boston victory parade.
Nelly Arcan was an elegant Quebec escort who wrote four revealing books, including one published after she committed suicide in 2009.
In Anne Émond’s film that dramatizes with some grittiness and eroticism Nelly’s perpetually high-flying life in and out of many beds, Mylene MacKay gives a phenomenally authentic and ultimately touching performance of a self-destructive woman whose demise is unsurprising but harrowing nonetheless. The film has a top-notch hi-def transfer.
In this latest addition to The Conjuring franchise, an evil spirit scares the bejesus out of a novitiate and a priest who are investigating the surprising suicide of another young nun in a rural church in Romania. The laziness involved—standard-issue bumps in the night and feeble, well-worn scare tactics—is too bad considering there’s a decent cast (Demian Bichir, Taissa Farmiga) and a wonderfully photogenic setting for the conceit to work.
But director Corin Hardy just shrugs and does the minimum amount possible. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras include deleted scenes, featurettes and interviews.
Westworld—Complete 2nd Season
(Warner Bros. Home Entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this blog post. The opinions I share are my own.)
Skillfully directed and acted, what Westworld lacks is a reason for going on and on as long as it does. What began as a diverting 1973 sci-fi flick (and an equally entertaining 1976 sequel) has been transmogrified into a convoluted and ultimately confused attempt at Significance.
While it’s always great seeing the likes of Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Wood in the prime of their careers—with a bonus nod to Sela Ward, who steals episode 9—the combination of self-satisfied writing, a portentous and overdone musical score and the feeling that the creators don’t really know where they’re heading combine for a self-defeating, enervating experience. The series looks tremendous in hi-def; extras are featurettes and interviews.
CDs of the Week
Leonard Bernstein—Fancy Free, Anniversaries for Orchestra; CBS Music, A Bernstein Birthday Bouquet
These two new discs were released on the tail end of the centenary of Bernstein’s birth, as the musical polymath has been feted around the world. Both CDs are conducted by Marin Alsop, a protégée of the conductor-composer-teacher-writer-raconteur, and feature world premiere recordings of some of his more obscure works. The first disc, along with the frothy overtures to Candide and Wonderful Town, includes the brilliant ballet Fancy Free and the first recording of the orchestrated versions of his pungent piano pieces, Anniversaries.
The second disc, alongside bits from West Side Story and On the Town, features a suite from his failed Broadway musical about the presidency, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the rarely-heard CBS Music and the delightful Bernstein Birthday Bouquet, where eight composers wrote tongue-in-cheek tributes for Lenny’s 70th birthday in 1988.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
Written by Bertolt Brecht; translated by George Tabori; directed by John Doyle
Performances through December 22, 2018
Raul Esparza in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (photo: Joan Marcus)
Bertolt Brecht wrote his mordant anti-Nazi satire, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, in 1941 while living in Finland, waiting for his visa so he could enter the United States. Perhaps looking forward to leaving, Brecht set his play in Chicago, and its lead gangster (who’s from New York) takes over the lucrative “cauliflower trust” and rises to the top of the windy city’s underworld.
For his own tRump-era take, director John Doyle uses George Tabori’s serviceable translation and adds unnecessary parallels to both Hitler and tRump: a spoken timeline of what was happening in Germany on the road to dictatorship has been inserted, and we periodically hear “Sieg heils” intoned, just in case the dimmest member of the audience doesn’t get the connection. Doyle’s most effective touch is turning those creepy shouts into a final, tRumpian “lock her up.”
Doyle also doesn’t have his Arturo Ui—played by the vibrant and charismatic Raúl Esparza—look like tRump in any way, except for a nice bit during Ui’s climactic rise-to-ultimate-power speech when he wears a red tie. The dazzling Esparza turns on the charm and the exaggerated Brooklyn accent as he badgers, cajoles and convinces his followers and enemies how much his “protection” will improve their lives.
Doyle has staged Ui as an ensemble piece, letting all cast members share in narrating the Hitler timeline, although his double- and triple-casting a few of the roles might confuse those in the audience unfamiliar with Brecht’s play. But Esparza guides us thrillingly through a blackly funny tale made all the darker by, in Brecht’s final warning, the fact that it could be happening again. And no amount of gallows humor will save us.
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY
Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon
Written by Scott Aiello; directed by Claire Karpen
Performances through December 2, 2018
Scott Aiello’s well-intentioned but mawkish Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon is set in the 1990s, something only gleaned from incidentals like someone wearing a Guns’n’Roses T-shirt. With his dialogue—aside from many F-words—setting and characters harking back to ‘50s sitcoms like Ozzie and Harriet and The Honeymooners, Aiello strings ginned-up crises together, with very little of it explored in any depth.
The working-class Vincolo family lives in a suburban Chicago neighborhood. Mike Sr. is a bar owner, wife Gladys a stay-at-home mom, and Mikey the mid-20ish son working in the local fast-food dive while pining for his lovely co-worker Laura, whose boyfriend inconveniently also works there. Then there’s Bernie, Mikey’s early-20ish sister whose near-fatal case of encephalitis as a toddler left her with brain damage, and the fallout is something everyone must deal with.
Aiello shows a close family chained to the beloved but difficult Bertie, making their lives progressively more challenging. But he never does much with that interesting dilemma aside from desperate attempts at comedy—Dad’s partner at the bar, Ski, is leaden comic relief, as is the running gag of phone calls from Jeff Goldblum (that’s really the name Aiello chose), an autistic young man who has a crush on Bernie—and near-tragedy, when Bernie disappears from K-Mart.
It’s all too neatly, and melodramatically, resolved at the end, and while the old-fashioned writing might steer clear of true bathos, it prevents the play from digging too deeply into these lives.
Like the script, Claire Karpen’s straightforward staging relies too heavily on Elvis songs—Bernie loves the singer—which also hampers Forrest Malloy’s otherwise likeable Mikey, who has to do a bad Elvis impression that’s reprised in an overlong diversion when he “speaks” to Bernie through his rolls of stomach flab. Malloy does have a nice rapport with both Ismenia Mendes—who does far more with the underwritten Laura than anyone would have thought possible—and Stephanie Gould (who herself has cerebral palsy), whose Bernie plausibly alternates between stubbornness and docility.
Too bad Margo Singaliese (Mom), Jordan Lage (Dad) and Stephen D’Ambrose (Ski) are hampered by the caricatures they’re playing. At least Aiello’s heart is in the right place.
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY
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