Cher Bests Howard Beale and the Ape

“Network,” “King Kong” falter, but the diva richly gets her due

Teal Wicks, Stephanie J. Block, and Micaela Diamond in Rick Elice’s “The Cher Show,” directed by Jason Moore, at the Neil Simon Theatre.
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By the time the monkey shows up, the show is pretty much over. That’s because the new musical “King Kong” has very little going for it other than the enormous puppet, which, when at its full height, nearly reaches the top of the proscenium of the Broadway Theatre. It’s an impressive bit of engineering, design, and rigging brought to life by a team of about 10 puppeteers. The animatronic face and the voice are run by a team of technicians at the back of the theater. But, like most attractions from Barnum to Disney, once seen and marveled at, there’s not really much more to it. Feast your eyes, and head to the exits.

The problem is not the puppet. “Avenue Q” and, especially, “War Horse” demonstrated the comic and emotive power of puppetry in grown-up theater. No, the problem with “King Kong” is the show itself. The book by Jack Thorne is a hodgepodge mess that makes the vain attempt to update the classic “damsel in distress” scenario with a more empowered woman, but don’t look for it to make sense. The score by Marius de Vries and Eddie Perfect is a pastiche of middling, generic rock performed with the kind of talent show belt that’s far too common these days. Director and choreographer Drew McOnie devoted a lot of effort to keeping sets and people out of the way of the puppet. Some of the choreography is quite interesting, contemporary, and athletic, though it makes no sense to insert what appears to be a brief homage to Martha Graham when the people of New York are fleeing Kong on the rampage. Had all of this been played for camp and silliness, or if it were half the length and designed to show off the puppet, it might have worked, but the show is weighted down by its attempt to be moralistic and epic.

The basic premise is the same as the movie. Director Carl Denham discovers young, struggling actress Ann Darrow, and off they go to Skull Island to film with the gigantic King Kong. When things don’t go so well, they bring the ape back to exhibit him, though Ann has now developed a relationship of sorts with Kong, who is depressed. Ann runs away from him. He climbs the Empire State building and gets shot down. The end.

Eric William Morris does pretty well with the shallow role of Carl. He’s got a strong voice, but he never really finds a focus for the role, which is the fault of the script. Christiani Pitts as Ann has all the earnestness one would expect of an aspiring actress/ pop singer — with a great stage presence and the ability, on occasion, to lend the vapid songs some feeling. The ensemble is enthusiastic, hardworking, and often given to mugging, but that too is in the writing. For all the good intentions, though, “King Kong” the musical is just a beast.

Sometimes, though, big and dumb is just the ticket. And when it’s done with the kind of style, comedy and showbiz razzle dazzle of “The Cher Show,” the result is an eye-popping spectacle that’s a great, big Broadway show that wants nothing more than to entertain. And entertain it does. At heart, it’s a bio of Cher featuring all her greatest songs. Book writer Rick Elice, who does a fine job of telling the story with affection and humor, probably knew that Cher was too big a character for just one actress, so he has three, who play her at different stages of her life — as Babe, Lady, and Star.

This is the kind of conceit that either works or it doesn’t, and here it does because of the easy banter among the three, who illuminate the internal life of a woman who’s lived her life in public — and the tabloids. It’s at once very humanizing and reflective of the ironic sense of humor Cher always seems to have had about herself. All the other boldface names from Cher’s life are here, too: Sonny Bono, Bob Mackie, Gregg Allman, Phil Spector, and Cher’s mother, Georgia Holt. They’re all integral to the story, but the show is most engaging when we’re with Cher and all her selves at different times of her life. Elice has made Cher relatable, and looked for the soul beneath the sequins.

Don’t worry, though, there are plenty of sequins, including classic and unforgettable outfits and a full-on fashion show from the iconic Mackie, who did all the clothes. Who else could? Under the witty and affectionate direction of Jason Moore, the show flies by, and choreographer Christopher Gattelli has outdone himself with period-rich quotations in some of the numbers and the exuberant athleticism he does so well in others.

As Cher, Stephanie J. Block as Star walks away with the show. From the moment she opens her mouth and sounds almost exactly like Cher through the end of the show, she commands the stage with effortless style. Block is a standout in any show she’s in, but here she’s at the top of her game. It’s no mean feat impersonating a living legend, and Block does more than just an impression: she gives Cher a full life. Teal Wicks as Lady and Micaela Diamond as Babe are both excellent, as well, and it’s fascinating to hear how each of them interprets the voice at different ages. The three women are wonderful together, which is also what makes the concept work. Jarrod Spector is terrific as Sonny Bono, and Emily Skinner, in great voice, also demonstrates her powerful comic talents as Georgia.

I was never a Cher fan, though I enjoyed some of her songs, and I knew virtually none of her story going into this show. In recent years, though, her savvy political commentary, activism, ability to keep reinventing herself, and determination never to give up have revealed an inspiring depth and complexity. That, combined with the knockout showmanship, is what make “The Cher Show” a must-see celebration of a very versatile star.

“Network,” the Broadway show based on the Paddy Chayefsky film, adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, is as timely as it was when the film came out 40 years ago, perhaps more so. The essential argument in the piece is about whether news objectively delivers factual information as a public service or is a business to be exploited for profitability. Our society currently wrestles with every possible nuance raised by that conflict.

The story, set decades ago, revolves around Howard Beale, a veteran newscaster being fired because his ratings have dropped. That is until he has a meltdown live on TV, and his ratings skyrocket. No longer a journalist, he becomes a personality, and along the way a corporate pawn. The news era of Murrow and Cronkite gives way to the world of “infotainme­nt,” as manipulation of people becomes the order of the day, whether in sell products or ideas. Chayefsky’s script was always a little preachy, and Hall’s adaptation is as well. Given the scandals at Facebook and the exploitation of social media for propaganda, the play seems arcane, even pointless. The battle is over, and no amount of outrage is going to change the outcome; too many people are making too much money. When it comes to news, as with the products advertised on it, it’s caveat emptor all the way.

Though Ivo Van Hove’s production does its best to convey the urgency of live news — on a magnificent set by Jan Versweyveld — and the vibrancy of the newsroom, it is largely a cold and cerebral exercise. The characters are one-dimensional and there is no tension or conflict. A subplot about an affair between Howard’s longtime producer Max and a young woman immersed in the soulless machine of TV profits, Diana, falls flat. A scene where Diana achieves orgasm while screwing with Max and talking about ratings points plays as heavy handed and gratuitous. (As in “Pretty Woman,” simulated sex on stage is usually clumsy and cringe-inducing.)

At the center of the piece is Bryan Cranston as Howard. Cranston is insanely charismatic and always exciting to watch, but the script allows for no nuance, and the performance, though impressive, comes off as highly technical and often cartoonish. Tony Goldwyn as Max and Tatiana Maslany as Diana are both wonderful actors, and they fill their roles to the extent the script allows them to. But the characters are all pawns in a dated, wannabe morality play. I’d just as soon change the channel.

KING KONG | The Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at W. 53rd St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $49-$165 at or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 30 mins, with intermission

THE CHER SHOW | Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $69-$169 at or 800-743-3000 | Two hrs., 30 mins,, with intermission

NETWORK | Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $89-$169 at or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 10 mins., no intermission

Updated 3:35 pm, December 14, 2018
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As the city becomes duller the Broadway shows become dumber.
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