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.
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 10th February, 2016
The mean streets of Jersey, a breeding ground for mobsters and organised crime, also spawned the remarkable talent of Frankie Valli and his fellow band members. Valli’s rise is the subject matter of this biographical jukebox show but what sets it apart from and above many others in the genre is its handling of the storytelling. The story is divided into four acts, one for each season, and each act sees a different character adopt the role of narrator, until we get to Winter and Valli himself gives us his point of view as he juggles professional success with personal tragedy.
The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice is peppered with adult language, like the screenplay of Goodfellas – there is even an appearance by ‘Joe Pesci’ (Damien Buhagiar) whose path crossed with Valli’s on those mean streets. Short scenes give the story a cinematic feel. The score brings together all the great songs of Bob Gaudio but it’s more than a trip down Memory Lane. The hits and the snazzy jackets keep coming: Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like AMan… impeccably delivered by a talented quartet. It’s like watching the best tribute act ever but more so. The show doesn’t shy away from its grown-up material while managing not to be salacious or gratuitous. There is credibility to the tough-talkers as well as real heart in the performances.
Sam Ferriday is excellent as song-writing wunderkind Bob Gaudio and Lewis Griffiths’s basso profundo lends a humorous edge to the taciturn Nick Massi. Stephen Webb’s Tommy DeVito brings the group together and tears it apart in a rounded characterisation – DeVito’s excesses and drive are convincingly depicted. Inevitably, perhaps, the focus is on Frankie Valli. Matt Corner gives a blistering performance, emulating Valli’s range including that searing falsetto. The action covers several decades – Corner subtly shows us Valli’s advancing age and the weight of his problems on his shoulders.
There is strong support from the rest of the company. Mark Heenehan is powerful as mob boss Gyp Decarlo, Joel Elfernink adds a touch of camp as Bob Crewe and Amelia Adams-Pearce embodies the fast-talking nasal accent of Valli’s home turf in a sardonic portrayal of his wife Mary.
Valli’s story is a rare example of the American Dream coming true. Rising from a humble and criminalised background through dint of hard work, he reaches the top and stays there, weathering whatever storms life and Tommy DeVito throw at him. Jersey Boys celebrates his success, reminding us of the gifts he and Bob Gaudio gave the world with a back catalogue of timeless classics.
It’s just too good to be true and you can’t take your eyes off of Matt Corner. Jersey Boys is sheer entertainment that has you walking out of the theatre like a man with a head full of tunes.
The redcoats are coming: (L-R) Sam Ferriday, Stephen Webb, Matt Corner, and Lewis Griffiths (Photo: Helen Maybanks)