"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." With that U2 chestnut, Cher begins her eponymous Caesars Palace show, which just celebrated its second anniversary. Ticket-buyers, after sitting through the muddled and costly extravaganza that is Cher, might leave the theater not having found what they're looking for either. Or have they?
When attending a show entitled Cher, one might reasonably expect it to prominently feature … Cher. Such expectations are sadly crushed. Cher runs 100 minutes and contains 30 minutes, perhaps less, of Cher onstage and 70 minutes of Other Stuff. It's as though Harrah's Entertainment CEO Gary Loveman was paying his headliner by the minute and determined to minimize his outlay.
In Céline Dion: A New Day, Dion and director Franco Dragone knew what the public was coming to see (Céline) and delivered it, in spades, whether one liked the final product or not. Bette Midler's self-staged Colosseum extravaganza, too, was generous with her talent in the extreme. It also had rhythm, pace and a unifying style, qualities lacking in Cher.
The stupefaction-inducing spectacle that transpires at the Colosseum is, instead, more like "V: The Ultimate Variety Show with special guest Cher." Or maybe "Cirque du Cher," judging by the ill-advised acrobactic numbers that are included (and of which more have been added since Cher was new). If people want to see double-trapeze acts, there's a company in town that specializes in such things and has seven shows on the Strip. Why remind your audience of that fact?
The nominal headliner is upstaged by her Bob Mackie costumes (12, at least), a fashion parade that seems to be have been Cher's creative starting point: a creatively fatal decision from whence it was all downhill. The show simply never gains momentum. Its basic formula has Cher saunter on in a drop-dead outfit (some tactfully modified in deference to her 64 years), sing half a song, then depart for several minutes. Repeat ad infinitum and you have Cher. You also have a fatally slack spectacle more concerned with wig changes than music.
The "down time" is filled with second-rate Cirque, blinding Nuremberg-rally lighting effects and a one-man-plus-puppets rendition of "YMCA" so bad it doesn't even qualify as camp. At least the contortionists appear to have been banished. (If Midler's show was High Camp at its finest, Cher is Vegas Tacky … and not in a good way.) As for the choreography, it could be the textbook definition of "uninspired," sinking to laughable depths in a 'tribal' bit that prefaces - you guessed it - "Half Breed."
With so many costume changes to cover, the well of inspiration quickly runs dry and the production resorts to interminable video segments. It's like watching your entire Sonny & Cher DVD collection in the company of a few thousand of your closest friends. Only in a Sixties-themed segment is the show's infrastructure - dancers, backup singers, band, set and video cyclorama - employed to maximum potential. Otherwise, you'd have to have to be in a remarkably indulgent frame of mind to regard Cher as Colosseum-worthy entertainment.
A few tweaks and additions have been made over the show's first two years. There's a newish production number that's a garble of gangster movies and other mid-20th century iconography, featuring Cher in a zoot suit and mustache that make her look like Edward James Olmos. She segues inexplicably from "Fire Down Below" to Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock & Roll."
Marc Cohn's "Walking in Memphis" is now backed with sepia-toned footage of Cher gotten up (rather convincingly) as an Elvis impersonator, prowling parts of Memphis that don't appear to have changed much since "Hound Dog" first made the charts. Most of Cher's onstage patter is now corralled into a long monologue at the top of the show, which forfeits one of her strongest assets - the ability to forge a conspiratorial rapport with her audience.
Cher's late husband and early mentor, Sonny Bono, was a champion of intellectual-property rights. In the latter role, he has wreaked a beyond-the-grave revenge on his ex-wife. She's enjoined from performing many of the songs that made her famous and "I Got You Babe" is included by dint of performing it as a duet between present-day Cher and Sonny's old vocal track. (It says a lot for the much-maligned Bono that this is the emotionally strongest portion of Cher.) With so much of the Sixties and Seventies off-limits, Cher must eke out a string of soundalike power ballads, vamping until the inevitable "If I Could Turn Back Time" and "Believe."
By this point, that segment of the audience for whom any Cher shortcomings are irrelevant has achieved delirium and it's a group love-in. The star's certainly got nothing for which to apologize on the front vocal. Her socko "belt" register is money in the bank, her plummy alto lower register - shading into basso profundo - is plentifully rich and her upper voice still posssess considerable sheen. In short, she's astonishingly well-preserved of voice, making no audible concessions to the sands of time. (Cher's quite well-preserved in other respects, but let's leave bionics out of this.)
Why, then, is Cher structured as though to protect its star from having to tax her instrument? Unlike poor Wayne Newton, late of the Tropicana, Cher is far from living on memories. She could sit on a bar stool, lay into one tune after another and it would be fantastic. But few exceptions, like a stand-and-deliver "Love Hurts," Cher basically sings as little as she can get away with.
The answer would appear to be that her core audience, still turning out in droves, really doesn't expect or demand much from their idol. Whenever this topic arises, the basic response is a shrug and a sort of "We're not coming to hear her sing" sort of answer. All that's required is an onstage manifestation of Her Cherness and a walkthrough of a few dance-in-the-aisles chart-toppers.
Since this has proven a lucrative and lasting formula for Cher at Caesars Palace, more power to her. However, anybody expecting a front-rank Vegas show should buy tickets for something else. What you'll get at Cher is a pleasant wallow in nostalgia, a bit of music and - most importantly - a costume parade that's like a one-woman Jubilee!
Cher plays at 7:30 p.m. Tues.-Wed., Sat.-Sun., at the Caesars Palace Colosseum, 3570 S. Las Vegas Blvd., on selected dates in May-July and Sept.-Oct. 2010. Call (702) 731-7110. Prices are $112.90-$276.70.