The life and mu­sic of Cher comes to Broad­way, with three ac­tresses

The Day - - DAYBREAK - By JOSEPH V. AMODIO

Yeah, right. Su­u­u­u­ure. That’s what Rick Elice thought back in 2014 the first time he got a call from some­one say­ing, “Hi, it’s Cher.” He was con­vinced it was a pal play­ing a prank. It wasn’t.

It was the ac­tual Grammy, Emmy and Os­car win­ner her­self, call­ing to see if Elice, who’d writ­ten the hit “Peter and the Star­catcher” and had co-writ­ten (with Mar­shall Brickman) the book for “Jersey Boys,” would con­sider writ­ing the book for a mu­si­cal about her life. Elice po­litely de­clined.

Over the next few months, he fielded calls from pro­duc­ers — and Cher again. He ex­plained that his hus­band, ac­claimed ac­tor Roger Rees, was dy­ing of brain can­cer, and that was his pri­or­ity.

Rees died in 2015 and later that fall, the phone rang again. Guess who?

“Cher said, ‘I’ve read ev­ery­thing you’re go­ing through, I know ex­actly what it is, be­lieve me, and I think you need to get out of the house … and visit me in Mal­ibu,’” re­calls Elice.

Cher, he’d soon learn, has an un­canny abil­ity to get peo­ple mov­ing, and not just on the dance floor. That abil­ity to push her­self and oth­ers past hard times and harsh crit­ics fu­els “The Cher Show,” a rous­ing new bio-mu­si­cal writ­ten by Elice, now play­ing at the Neil Si­mon The­atre. It fea­tures a slew of her hit songs, out­ra­geous cos­tumes by her life­long de­signer Bob Mackie, three ac­tresses (in­clud­ing Tony nom­i­nee Stephanie J. Block) play­ing Cher, and one lit­tle-known fact about the Amer­i­can icon that may sur­prise even her most ar­dent fans.

On that first trip to Mal­ibu, Elice was skep­ti­cal. When it came to Cher’s hy­per-pub­li­cized life, didn’t we know it all?

Not nearly, he learned. “She said, ‘Peo­ple think I’m enor­mously con­fi­dent be­cause I prance around the stage in a G-string, but it takes courage to do that when you’ve al­ways been shy and afraid of peo­ple.’” Cher, shy? “I was shocked — she seems so un-shy,” says Donna Bach-Heit­ner, an East Meadow chi­ro­prac­tor who saw a pre­view per­for­mance of “The Cher Show” with her hus­band. “I guess some peo­ple just have a cer­tain re­silience.”

Given that re­silience, Elice de­cided mul­ti­ple ac­tresses should play Cher, ap­pear­ing on­stage to­gether to sup­port and chal­lenge each other. New­comer Mi­caela Di­a­mond plays hip­pie Cher, aka “Babe,” from the early “Sonny and Cher” va­ri­ety-show era; Teal Wicks is “Lady,” the glam Hol­ly­wood Cher; and Block por­trays “Star,” the pop-chart diva.

Cher’s abil­ity to rein­vent her­self in­trigued Elice most, per­haps be­cause he was griev­ing. Even to­day, Elice can still tell you with­out hes­i­ta­tion the num­ber of weeks it’s been since his hus­band’s death (174, as of this in­ter­view).

He re­al­ized he shared some-

thing in com­mon with the su­per­star — a sense of loss, which he could hear in song lyrics, like “Do you be­lieve in life after love?” He told her it’s the thing he strug­gles with ev­ery day.

Block faced a dif­fer­ent strug­gle. Known for her soar­ing belt and ease at play­ing strong­willed char­ac­ters, the ac­tress found her­self ner­vous when first meet­ing Mackie to dis­cuss her cos­tumes.

“Words like pasties came up, and whether or not un­der­wear could even be worn, and I was like, ‘Whoa, WHOA, WHOOOOA!””

Block, who’s 46, bursts out laugh­ing. “I went in there with the dis­claimer, ‘You know my body is not the same as Cher’s.’”

Mackie is sym­pa­thetic, re­call­ing those early fit­tings.

“It’s tricky, putting these clothes on an ac­tress who didn’t grow up want­ing to be Cher.”

Though she’s never had to re­veal this much skin, Block has be­come more com­fort­able in the wardrobe, call­ing it her “coat of ar­mor.” Al­beit an ab­bre­vi­ated one. “I needed to em­brace this woman not just from the in­side out but the out­side in,” she says.

The au­di­ence, in turn, em­braces each Cher ac­tress, with ev­ery at­ten­tion-get­ting look.

“It’s amaz­ing. She rises out of the floor, and the au­di­ence goes crazy,” says Mackie, not­ing Block’s en­trance in the out­ra­geous gown and Mo­hawk that Cher wore to the 1986 Os­cars cer­e­mony.

Block has 28 cos­tume changes in the show, the quick­est around 20 sec­onds, she es­ti­mates, with eight peo­ple back­stage to as­sist. It’s Broad­way’s ver­sion of a NASA liftoff. “I lit­er­ally stand there and you hear: ‘Shoes?’ ‘Check.’ ‘Dress?’ ‘Check.’ ‘Wig?’ ‘Check.’ ‘Fi­nal look? Wa­ter?’ ‘Check, check.’”

“Her changes are un­be­liev­ably fast,” Mackie agrees. “And they just keep get­ting faster and faster.”

The ar­rival of “The Cher Show” on Broad­way marks some­thing of a 2018 tri­fecta for Cher. She’s al­ready gar­nered at­ten­tion re­cently thanks to her ap­pear­ance in last sum­mer’s “Mamma Mia” se­quel, and as a Kennedy Cen­ter hon­oree. (That awards cer­e­mony will air on CBS Dec. 26.)

But this mu­si­cal’s rev­e­la­tion — that Cher’s flam­boy­ance stems more from shy­ness than van­ity or chutz­pah — may keep peo­ple chat­ter­ing.

“Well, she was never shy about the clothes,” Mackie ad­mits. “Maybe be­cause she looked so amaz­ing with very lit­tle on, it never oc­curred to her to be neu­rotic. Of course, there are women with beau­ti­ful bod­ies who are ter­ri­fied to be seen, so … I don’t know.”

For Block, this seem­ing di­chotomy comes down to gram­mar. Cher re­cently joined the ac­tress in her dress­ing room, Block re­calls. “I said, ‘Here’s how I know you — you’re not a BUT, you’re an AND. It’s not that you’re this but that — you’re fear­ful and yet there’s some­thing won­der­fully strong about you. You’re vul­ner­a­ble and yet to­tally open. You’re glam­our and yet rock and roll.’”

Cher smiled, and grabbed Block’s hand.

“There was kind of this de­com­pres­sion, an ex­hale, as if to say ‘You get it,’” Block says.

Elice agrees. Cher’s strength grows out of fear, not in spite of it, he be­lieves.

JOAN MAR­CUS

Jar­rod Spec­tor and Mi­caela Di­a­mond as Sonny and Cher in “The Cher Show.”

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