Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Cher Show

In lots of ways, The Cher Show is remarkably similar to Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. Both are big, shiny, spectacular jukebox musicals about iconic female superstars, created by overwhelmingly male creative and production teams. Both feature three actresses playing different versions of the star in question at various points in her life. And for whatever reason, both use a great deal of blue lighting and trapdoor lifts, though Summer's excessive reliance on the latter ultimately kicks The Cher Show's measly, single-trap ass. In every other way, though, The Cher Show is the superior production.

Joan Marcus
Don't misunderstand me: The Cher Show is not Brilliant Art. It's silly and breezy and light, so skip it if the idea of a fun if slightly flimsy couple of hours in the theater offends you. This is the kind of jukebox musical that elicits gleeful applause at the opening notes of a pop standard, or when an actor manages a passable impersonation of a beloved celebrity (that's quite the groovy Sonny Bono voice you've nailed down, Jerrod Spector!). Still, it works in ways that Summer, which was weirdly tentative and frustratingly convoluted in execution, did not.

In the first place, Cher has a concept, however basic, that it doesn't veer from. It knows what makes its subject simultaneously larger than life and appealingly vulnerable. It recognizes that Cher has had thrilling highs and devastating lows, and it plays to them. It wisely lingers on the stuff that is most dramatically viable: her discovery by and relationship with Bono, her shifting personae, her diverse career, her relationship with her wise, tough mother--without dwelling for too long on any one thing, or attempting to dig too deep. It also knows how to make fun of itself from the outset. Having the three Chers greet the audience at the top of the first act by calling us all bitches before immediately confronting how bizarre it is, even to them, that there are three Chers hanging around onstage pretty much establishes the tone. In fact, this tactic won me over immediately, even as I remain uncertain as to why the hell there were three Chers up there, or what they were all supposed to be representing. But then, seriously now, who the hell cares? I certainly don't plan to lose sleep over the question, and I'm sure none of the three Chers give a shit, either--truly, I feel pretty secure in the notion that they all just want the spectators to enjoy looking at the shiny Bob Mackie costumes, some of which got their very own huge and elaborate production number. Reader, enjoy them I did.

Another enormously important thing The Cher Show gets right is its audience, which is largely if not entirely gay and/or female. The creative team might be just as male as Summer's was, but at least this show doesn't pander or condescend. There was something decidedly off-putting, for example, about how Summer tried to present itself as inclusive and empowering, even as as it quickly swept its heroine's infamous born-again-influenced homophobia under the rug with a few glib platitudes.

The Cher Show is hardly deep: you won't get much about Cher's life here that you couldn't learn from a glance at her Wikipedia page; probably the Wiki would tell you more. A sister is mentioned only once and in passing. Cher's relationships with her children are almost entirely off-limits. Her romances are all surfaces: they form, peak, and wither. Sonny remains an important force in her life after their divorce, but how, why, and in what ways aren't plumbed; nor is anything about Bono save that he was ambitious, business-minded, and extraordinarily controlling. Only Cher's mom (played by a fine Emily Skinner) has some depth; anyway, she seems like she was a consistent, positive force in Cher's life, whether that's true or not. Still, the show's constant nod to the importance of women doing shit for themselves--or, whatever, for their daughters, especially when their daughters turn out to be Cher--speaks volumes. So do the costumes, the huge wigs, and the autotune.

In short, this is a fluffy bauble that knows exactly what it is and exactly how to entertain. Kind of like its title character. Have fun, bitches, or stay home.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Choir Boy

Tarell Alvin McCraney's Choir Boy, just extended at the Friedman, is poignant, moving, and lovely. A coming-of-age drama set in an exclusive all-male, all-black boarding school, the swift 100-minute show focuses on Pharus Jonathan Young, a queer high-school senior whose greatest pride and source of comfort is his role as leader and star tenor of the school choir. Played by a truly exceptional Jeremy Pope, Pharus is deeply nuanced and often highly contradictory: smart, headstrong and self-possessed; unsure of who he is and where he belongs in the world.

Matthew Murphy

Much like McCraney's MoonlightChoir Boy places focus on the personal development of a single gay, black, male character over time; whereas Moonlight followed Chiron from youth to adulthood, Choir Boy covers events that take place in the course of a single year. Scenes are frequently punctuated by choreographed choral arrangements of gospel chestnuts, many of which touch on the character's situations or emotional highs and lows. Some of the choral arrangements are more sophisticated than others, but the concept works consistently, and some of the numbers are particularly effective.

The general consensus among critics about Choir Boy is that Pharus is far better developed than the characters who surround him, and who alternately make high school life less or more difficult for him. But I don't care, even a little bit, about the fact that the supporting characters don't have the depth or nuance of Pharus. They're engaging enough; the company is well-cast and talented to a man. And anyway, this is Pharus's story, and his very real ups and downs are well worth the audience's attention. How many times, after all, have characters like Pharus been made secondary, flimsy, shoved off to the side, reduced to two dimensions and a couple of stereotypical gestures designed to amuse spectators?  

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Best Performances of 2018

I am frequently blown away by the depth and quality of the New York acting community. Brilliant performances are everywhere.

(I've linked to my reviews for shows I did indeed review.)


In the following shows, everyone was wonderful.

A Chorus Line

Band’s Visit

Dance Nation

Desperate Measures


Hello Dolly

Ordinary Days

The Possibilities/The After-Dinner Joke


In the following shows, everyone was wonderful but one or two people stood out, usually in lead roles.

Conflict--great cast, especially Jeremy Beck

Fabulation--great cast, especially Cherise Boothe

Ian Lassiter and Cherise Boothe
Photo: Monique Carboni

Happy Birthday, Wanda June--great cast, especially Jason O'Connell and Kate MacCluggage

Holy Ghosts--great cast, especially Oliver Palmer

Jerry Springer The Opera--great cast, especially Will Swenson


And then there are two individual performances I want to single out.

Farah Alvin was a new discovery for me in Inner Voices 2018. I think she can do pretty much anything.

Farah Alvin
Photo: Russ Rowland

In contrast, Ethan Hawke has long been a favorite of mine. I enjoy his all-in, balls-to-the-wall commitment to his roles, and I enjoy even more that he knows when to pull back. In True West, he is mesmerizing.


Now I'm wondering if I should have included Jerry Springer The Opera, Ordinary Days, and The Possibilities/The After-Dinner Joke on my "best of" list. They were all wonderful. But what would I have removed from the existing list to make room?

Wendy Caster

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Best of 2018

In 2018, I saw 74 shows. Only nine of them were on Broadway; those prices, even when discounted, keep scaring me away. However, I've lost little by skipping Broadway shows (as much as I would have liked to see some of them). But Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway remain amazing, with OOB being particularly affordable.

Before making this list, I did a quick grading of the shows I saw. It was a good year: 27 rated A; 28 rated B; 7 rated C; and 12 rated D. I didn't rate any of them F, because I love and admire theatre and the people who make theatre happen.

This is not a top ten. It's a top 13, and I managed to actually include 18 shows. In cases where I reviewed the show, I've linked to the review. Oh, and I certainly understand that this is really a list of "shows I liked best of the shows I saw" and not truly a "best of" list. But calling these lists "best of" is the custom, and I'm going along with that.

The list is alphabetical.

A Chorus Line: It was a truly extraordinary experience to get to see a first-class production of this wonderful show in such an intimate setting. Kudos to the Gallery!