Charting the life story of one Cherilyn Sarkisian, this show gives us not one, not two, but three Cher-alikes, depicting the diva at three stages of her career. There is Millie O’Connell as Babe, taking us from bullied schoolgirl to budding hippie popstar. There is Danielle Steers as Lady, showing us Cher in the Sonny Bono years. And there is Debbie Kurup as Star, giving us Cher post-Sonny and beyond. Each performer is phenomenal but I find when they’re all on stage together, I can’t help but compare them: this one looks most like the real thing… that one sounds most like the real thing… The other one can do the hair toss… When they’re all chatting in that characteristic and highly mannered way of speaking, it’s a bit weird. What starts as a narrative device becomes an alienation effect, and I can’t warm to any incarnation.
Rick Elice’s book contains some zingers but on the whole I get the impression that Cher has had a miserable life. The script focusses on the low points, the relationship break-ups, the unemployment, while successes (winning an Oscar) are glossed over. Some songs fit their moments better than others, but we get all the hits – and more.
With Arlene Phillips directing and Oti Mabuse choreographing, as you might expect, the staging of the musical numbers is top drawer, energetically executed by an excellent ensemble. Production values are high, although the set, which mainly consists of row upon row of costumes in bags suspended on rails, gives the impression that the main events of Cher’s life took place in a dry cleaner’s.
As well as the three Chers, we get Lucas Rush bringing moments of tension as Sonny Bono, Jake Mitchell camping it up as Bob Mackie, and the versatile Sam Ferriday playing a range of parts including 70s rock yeti Greg Allman. There is strong support from Tori Scott as Cher’s mum, although she does repeat the key line, “The song makes you strong” a little too often. One moment is splendidly touching: the recently deceased Sonny duetting with Cher one last time, before she realises she’s no longer got you, babe.
Danny Belton conducts a splendid band. The story might come across as a bit of a downer but the music is relentlessly uplifting, culminating in the inevitable megamix that gets everyone on their feet and enjoying the party atmosphere. And there is much to enjoy, in the performances, in the music, but I feel unengaged and distanced from the material, and I love Cher as much as any gay man.
The Alexandra, Birmingham, Tuesday 13th November, 2018
As ever, I approach this jukebox musical with trepidation. Will it be the same sort of flimsy plot with old songs shoehorned in just for the sake of it? Will I sit there for two hours asking myself what’s the point?
All my fears were allayed within minutes. It turns out Rock of Ages is an absolute beaut of a show, hugely enjoyable from start to finish. Set in mid-to-late 1980s on L.A.’s Sunset Strip, this is a world of big hair and ripped jeans, where ‘rock’ is a verb and middle fingers are firmly jabbed upwards. At no point are we invited to take any of it seriously. The fourth wall is well and truly demolished and the script is peppered with theatrical gags, celebrating the artifice of the enterprise.
Our narrator is Lonny, performed by an irresistibly likeable Lucas Rush, camp, crass and hilarious. Lonny works as a ‘sound guy’ in the Bourbon Room, a club owned by ageing rocker Dennis (an unrecognisable Kevin ‘Curly Watts’ Kennedy). Rush and Kennedy make an excellent pairing: their rendition of I Can’t Fight This Feeling is a comic highlight of a show that has many such moments.
Leading man Drew, a wannabe rocker, is played by Luke Walsh, whose voice is absolutely searing. The only thing missing is a good head of big hair for him to bang when the need arises. Leading lady Sherrie, a wannabe actor who has a harder time of it than Drew (but this reflects the sexual politics of the era, I suppose) is played by Danielle Hope, combining strength and vulnerability. Her voice has Pat Benatar qualities and her rendition of More Than Words gives shivers.
The course of Drew’s love doesn’t run smooth, of course, and he is disheartened when Sherrie, believing Drew isn’t interested, becomes entangled with rock superstar Stacee Jaxx – a toweringly funny portrayal from the mighty Sam Ferriday. His Jaxx is all ego and charisma; Ferriday is lithe and sinuous and hilarious in his physicality. His voice is superb. I find myself falling for this long-haired, white-suited monster.
Vas Constanti and Andrew Carthy bring broad comedy as a pair of German property developers, the villains of the piece who make ‘Allo Allo’ seem subtle. Carthy also proves himself a nifty mover in some surprising dance moments. Rhiannon Chesterman is consistently bonkers as activist Regina, while the phenomenal Zoe Birkett is a strong contender for the show’s vocal crown as stripclub-owner Justice.
The book, by Chris D’Arienzo, keeps the jokes flowing along with a plethora of 80s soft rock hits, and I am surprised whenever, among the knockabout fun, moments of beauty arise: Every Rose Has Its Thorn stirs the blood. The music is provided by a brilliant onstage band under the aegis of musical director Barney Ashworth, and there is energetic pastiche choreography by Nick Wilson and Ryan-Lee Seager (who also direct) and of course we are all up on our feet by the end – how could you not be? How could you not adore this crazy cavalcade? You must be made of rock.
I leave the theatre exhilarated – and relieved they didn’t kill the mood with the title song!