Brighton Year-Round 2022
Directed by Arlene Phillips, Choreography Oti Mabuse, Lighting Design Ben Cracknell, Costume Design Gabriella Slade, Set Design Tom Rogers, Sound Design Dan Samson
Casting Will Burton CDG, Wigs Hair & Make-Up Design Sam Cox, Costume Supervision Lydia Hardiman,
Musical Production Gary Hickeson, Association Direction James Cousins, Associate Choreography James Bennett, Musical Direction Danny Belton, Artwork Feast Creative, Musical Supervision, Arrangements and Orchestrations Rich Morris
Marketing Helen Snell Associates, Press Amanda Malpass PR, General Management Royo, Production Management Lee Batty & Andy Fox for Setting Line
Till November 12th and touring
Three Tall Women? That’s the title of an Edward Albee play, but probably Three (two of the three Chers were in Six) might be punchier. And this show delivers nothing but knockouts. Babe (Millie O’Connell, also award-nominated in Rent), Lady (Danielle Steers, also Bat Out of Hell, Sweet Charity,), Star (Debbie Kurup – odd one out, not Six but Prince of Egypt, Sweet Charity, Girl from the North Country, The Bodyguard) split the limelight into a rainbow of storytelling and Cher’s uproarious argument with herselves. This gives coherence to the ebb and pluck of those incessant comebacks, which usually, miraculously, bring new career highs – including an Oscar, endless other awards.
Cher A New Musical – first staged in Chicago in 2018 then Broadway – comes to on the latest leg of its year-long-till-April tour to Theatre Royal Brighton for two weeks, as it starts its UK tour, on this evidence a sure-fire West End hit. See it here first before you feel compelled to travel to pay West End prices.
Directed by Arlene Phillips, with choreography by Oti Mabuse, it’s a show blessed with two outstanding features after its stars and their songs: Rick Elice’s Book excels in acerbic characterisation, delivering blistering one-liners – as you might expect from the writer of The Jersey Boys. It goes as far as a feel-good musical can into lows, but its dialogue is the wittiest I’ve seen in a big show of the last decade or so, even if some mightn’t love its downbeat elements: I do. In the best sense it’s what you expect from smaller-scale edgier works.
The other is Tom Rogers’ vertiginous set, skyscraper-banks of iron-grey costumes, four-high in several scaffoldings, with Ben Cracknell’s phenomenally present lighting delivering coups and neon-strips, pulsing effects and spotlighting, shadows, gulphs and bleach-outs. And one curious fade. Against Rogers’ uniform greys too, Gabriella Slade’s blazing costumes (as in Six) emphasise Cher’s florescence and that of co-stars, whilst a dance ensemble also dons greys to set off the brilliance of key performers, not confined to the Chers. The 70s twosome of herself and second husband Greg, all lavender mint and platforms, is an ice-cream not easily forgotten once served. The gold rises after.
The three ages of Cher mean this 132-minute-plus-interval roller-coaster allows Cher’s story a shapeshifting, continually morphing series of highs, but without (as happened to Cher) fear of burnout.
We start and end with a latter-day crisis of telling, where all three Chers inhabit a dressing room – a vast nightmare bank of make-up mirrors eight-foot-high often swivels on in these scenes. ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’ is the first of the Cher hits all three singers share.
O’Connell’s Babe though is the earliest focus, and what a voice she has. Raspy where needs, charactered perhaps more than her elder siblings (young and untried Cher) with that fragile giant feel of Cher offstage, her voice is phenomenal. Already rising, she’s the find of the evening. ‘I Got You Babe’, ‘The Shoop Shoop Song’ and other early hits like ‘Little Man’, including the couple’s work in backing-vocals get worked out here, the early heady unforgettable melodies of the times; with O’Connell chararacterising Cher’s timbre as she sings. Her contralto range -blazing both dark Cher sonorities with an acid desolation whilst projecting so explosively – is transfixing. And she can dance.
With mother Georgia (the superbly funny but moving Tori Scott) this first Cher moves to confidence and then meets her literal other half – Sonny (Guy Woolf alternating tonight for Lucas Rush), the man who discovers her and despite himself falls for her too. It’s not a relationship that can be told save in lightning-flashes: early amazement, infatuation, stardom, overwork, controlling financial behaviour, split and somehow despite all of this an enduring love. Woolf – also Resident Director – brings a fine voice and wry self-deprecation such as Sonny possessed especially in their heightist comedy routines of the late 60s-early 70s.
Sam Ferriday’s the other hard-working support, in four roles: a vignette as impressed-despite-himself Phil Spector, over-reaching director Joe Southall, and most of all that lavender-mob lover Greg Allman, singing through a fantastical wig – shout-out to Sam Cox whose work on the three Chers too is notable – and steady-but-young 1980s husband Rob Camilletti. Jake Mitchell enjoys vivid appearances as Cher’s perennial, wise-cracking fashion director Bob Mackie; always right, sort of.
By then Steers, a second Cher, has weathered all the trauma of the 1970s, with a scorching lyric range that soars up in ‘Strong Enough’, but comes for torch-songs neatly slotted into the deteriorating Sonny/Cher marriage: ‘Bang Bang: My Lover Shot Me Down’ which here takes on a poignancy its originators never dreamed of. With Ferriday and the satellite or meteor Woolf ever-returning (telling ‘Rapunzel’ Greg to get a haircut) Steer has to negotiate much of the early-mid career downer, working with crisis points. The stunning ‘Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves’ from 1971 opens the second half, sometime after the events portrayed then.
Here, Mabuse’s choreography thrives in either small numbers or brief ensemble workouts, but also in the way the Chers separate and come together. Rogers’ staging makes even the Theatre Royal look spacious though the choreography has a tougher time.
Naturally Kurup inhabits everything from ‘Just Like Jesse James’. ‘After All’ and Believe’ which she burns through with a lustral dark that’s quite bewitching, and can of course reach for gleaming top-notes. Kurup’s presence as Cher, and the whole Hollywood experience is wrought in circles recalling earlier eras and the burnout of the early 1990s; while the last incarnation of Ferriday as Camilletti occasions Kurup-Cher’s finest one-liner of the evening: ‘I feel I’m flirting with an ultrasound!’
The storyline’s most moving moments come when Kurup invokes Woolf’s Sonny, her mother Georgia (again Scott on acerbic-but-loving form), and most of all her previous selves reprising ‘If I Could Turn back Time’ and inevitably, rightly ‘Believe’, letters scored in evocatively-faded lettering on the stage-floor. Kurup carries the burden of an emotionally flayed Cher burning through, from paparazzi to posthumous duets; and alternates riotous one-liners with a haunting portrayal of Cher’s first time on Broadway, in rehearsal, finding a very different kind of voice.
Musical director Danny Belton synchs with the enormous panache you’d expect, slimmed here to three guitars, keyboards and perhaps percussively-assertive drums: that’s Rich Morris’s musical supervision, arrangements and orchestrations. They’re certainly punchy but don’t overwhelm either audience, or Dan Samson’s sound design; which this time isn’t as overwhelming as it can be.
This ensemble’s exceptional too, taking micro-parts and dancing in some of most active numbers: neat, energised, engaging. I make no apology for listing them: Jordan Anderton (who briefly plays the gentle choreographer Lee), Jasmine Jules Andrews, Carla Bertran, Catherine Cornwall, Aine Curran (also Resident Choreographer), Sam Holden, Samantha Ivey, Aston Newman Hannington, Ingrid Olivia, Clayton Rosa, Chay Wills.
Some things are a given. Great songs, compelling story. This is a terrific show though, chiefly for its stars – and ensemble – building on Elice’s Book and Roger’s set with Cracknell’s lighting. Cox’s Wigs and Slade’s costumes are as dazzling as you’d hope. Phillips directs with a keen sense of letting the musical breathe, and despite its length it never hangs. Mabuse’s choreography dazzles in some moments, is exquisite in others, though Brighton’s venue can be challenging. These will unwrinkle by the end of show’s tour (before the probable West End transfer), and we’ll soon be able to say: “I was there before it was famous.”