Cher and share alike: three actors star as the singer in musical that turns back time | Theater

Yor could call them a triple threat. Debbie Kurup, Danielle Steers and Millie O’Connell all play Cher in a new musical about her rise to fame. The Cher Show presents the singer at different points in her career, with versions of her character called Star, Lady and Babe. It opens with Star (Kurup) looking back on her life. “My character draws on the other two to help tell the story,” she explains.

The musical unfolds in chronological order with each era given its own distinctive colours, costumes and set. But O’Connell (Babe, the youngest Cher) explains that the three women are often on stage simultaneously. “We all watch each other’s big moments happen. We’re there to egg the other two on,” she says. “I like the analogy that Cher is watching back a VHS of her life,” adds Steers.

While she loves “belting out” Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down), it is the times that the trio sing together “that are really magical” says Steers. They single out the goosebump-inducing Song for the Lonely, which they sing in unison at the end of act one. “Lyrically, it is such an uplifting song,” Steers says. “At the end, we repeat the words ‘it’s gonna be alright’ – that is an anthem for everyone,” agrees O’Connell.

Cher, Steers argues, is the perfect protagonist for a musical: “She came from nothing, shot to superstardom and then lost everything – multiple times. Aside from a six-decade career, just being a survivor is a good foundation for any story.” Steers vehemently believes that the hits used in The Cher Show are never shoehorned in, as they are in some jukebox musicals. She calls it “reductive” to label The Cher Show as such. “The singing doesn’t feel unnatural. Often, the songs are in context or they come from a place of real feeling.” O’Connell adds: “The scenes are what you’d traditionally see in an intimate, hard-hitting play. We are totally driven by the words and the book written by Rick Elice – and, most importantly, Cher’s life.”

Dear in 1981.
‘A woman that’s been through a lot’… Cher in 1981. Photograph: Harry Langdon/Getty Images

O’Connell, 25, admits she didn’t know much at all about Cher’s history before starting rehearsals: “The Cher I knew was a queer icon. As a queer woman, I gravitated towards that part of her.” Steers – who plays the middle Cher, Lady – says it is her uniquely deep voice that has always captivated her: “There aren’t many women out there that have such a rich alto voice.” Steers used to see the singer “as a goddess warrior – which she is – but now I understand her weakness, too”. Kurup explains that her mother grew up listening to Cher and that love was passed down to her. She says: “Like me, Cher comes from mixed-ethnic origin, she faced bullying at school and had to endure racial prejudice. I share her fighting desire to keep moving forward.”

The show is directed by Arlene Phillips and choreographed by Oti Mabuse. “Arlene is a very physical director – she’ll jump up, script in hand and sing along with us,” says Steers, who adds that “Oti is a ball of sunshine”. They define the rehearsal process as one of co-creation. “Women creating with women is powerful. This is not society’s norm,” O’Connell says. “We’re dismantling expectation just by being in a room together. And, of course, that is very in the spirit of Cher.”

As they prepare to begin on a mammoth UK tour ending this time next year, the trio have some reservations. “It is not the tour itself, but the length of it. I have to just not think about the end date,” Kurup laughs. “I’m a little scared because I’ve not toured before,” adds Steers, but she finds some comfort in the fact that their time on the road is not continuous. “We have a break every three months,” says O’Connell. “I’m excited for the adventure.”

Lucas Rush as Sonny Bono and Millie O'Connell as Babe in The Cher Show.
Lucas Rush as Sonny Bono and Millie O’Connell as Babe in The Cher Show. Photograph: Pamela Raith

Gathered in a back room at their rehearsal studio in Borough, south London, the three Chers look totally relaxed in each other’s company. “Collectively, we do lots of tricks before going on stage to get her voice and sound,” O’Connell laughs. But is there a pressure that comes with playing someone so famous? “Oh yeah, there will be scrutiny,” Kurup says. “But, the only thing we can do is focus on being truthful.”

And what does the real Cher make of it all? Though none of the lead cast have met her, they are sure she will come and see the show. “I hope she feels seen and honoured. She’s a diva but also a woman that’s been through a lot,” Kurup says. “We want to do her proud.”

The Cher Show is on tour until 18 March.

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