Each year, actors, directors, musicians, composers, producers, parishioners, singers, clergy and others gather for an evening in September in one accord. Their purpose is to bless, to anoint the entire theater community from producers and actors to critics and technicians to transmit the energy of joy and peace that will be felt by patrons from around the world who walk into a New York City theater looking to be stirred, engaged and enthralled with the wisdom and verve of live performance. Theater has its origins in religion. Social mavens in ancient Greece conceived that theatergoers/religious adherents, as receptors of the energy that flowed back and forth from live actors to audience members would walk away revitalized from playwrights’ tragedies and comedies.
According to Kathryn Fisher, co-producer of Broadway Blessing 2019, “Broadway Blessing started in 1997 as an evening of song, dance and story to celebrate and ask for blessings on the new Broadway season. For many years it rotated among churches – St. Malachy’s, St. Clements, St. Luke’s, St. John the Divine, and the Little Church Around the Corner – finally returning to St. Malachy’s in 2017, where it has been since.”
The celebration has burgeoned. New York City’s theater community has at its heart this finer impulse and in addition to seeking to make a profit, it follows the same high calling to enrich and redeem theatergoers from themselves, their work lives and the drudgery of daily routines. Indeed, theater’s mission seems more vital than ever in our divisive and stressful political climate. Broadway Blessing 2019, now in its 22nd year, is a reckoning to be thankful for the riches of the upcoming year of theater in renewal and refreshment.
Broadway Blessing 2019 on Monday 16 September was produced by Kathryn Fisher and Co-Produced by Pat Addiss, with musical direction by Stephen Fraser and stage management by Mary Fran Loftus. Special thanks go to Retta Blaney, Founder, Fr. John Fraser, St. Malachy’s Church-The Actors’ Chapel, Fr. George Drance, SJ, Rabbi Jill Hausman, Congregation Ezrath Israel-Actors’ Temple with clergy from the theater district. The evening included Broadway and Off-Broadway performers, the Broadway Blessing Choir and Instrumentalists. Emceed by Fr. George Drance, SJ, who introduced the musical performers and guest presenters, Fr. George Drance, SJ’s pointed, informational commentary helped to make the evening flow seamlessly.
Musical numbers included songs from award-winning shows Oklahoma! Gypsy, West Side Story, Desperate Measures, The Music Man, Hair, The Lion King, Fiddler on the Roof, and La Cage aux Folles. Soloists included Mae Roney, Paul T. Ryan, Nancy Simpson, Katharine Heaton, Conor Ryan, Alex Fraser, Jill O’Hara, Liseli Lugo, Stephen Carlile, Sidney Meyer and Adam Shapiro.
Chita Rivera presented a lovely encomium about Hal Price who died on July 31, 2019. Chita Rivera is an incredible performer (actress, singer, dancer). It is fitting that Ms. Rivera, a two-time Tony Award winner with five Tony Award nominations and a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theater should recall to our remembrance Hal Prince’s indelible contributions to theater in the twentieth and twenty-first century. She worked with him in award winning shows he either produced or directed. The most recent collaboration was Kiss of The Spider Women (music by John Kander and Fred Ebb with book by Terrence McNally) in which she starred and he directed, shepherding her toward TONY, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle wins for her performance. Ms. Rivera emphasized Prince’s exceptionalism which will probably never be equaled. She highlighted with a significant pause so we could “get it” (I still can’t) that he won 21 Tony Awards which she saw with lined up on his desk.
In another segment of the program two-time Emmy Award winner and popular theater critic Roma Torre briefly interviewed Stephanie J. Block who won a TONY, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award for her performance in The Cher Show. Stephanie Block shared a humorous story of how she finally realized the speaking voice of Cher on vacation whitening her teeth with Oral B and Crest Whitening Strips. While she was using the strips she happened to speak to her husband who noted the transformation into Cher’s speaking voice. Stephanie J. Block’s teeth are stunning and the story of how she found Cher and received a TONY for it is priceless.
As a coda, Roma Torre is still with NY1, and the lawsuit continues encouraged by her fans and supporters, both men and women. They enjoy her experienced commentary and cogent reviews. Hopefully, her on air time will increase. It is completely understandable why Ms. Torre and five other female anchors are litigating against channel operator Charter Communications in an age- and gender-discrimination lawsuit. You may read the article about Roma Torre’s intrepid fight with her colleagues to stand up to gender/age discrimination by CLICKING HERE.
David Friedman is an award-winning composer of Desperate Measures (music David Friedman, book and lyrics Peter Kellogg). Through the years Friedman composed, conducted and arranged numerous songs, movies and Broadways shows. For Broadway Blessing 2019 he contributed his talent accompanying Sidney Myer in a special song Friedman composed via a request by Pat Addiss (co-producer of Desperate Measures with Mary Cossett).
However, before Sidney Myer sang, David Friedman discussed the song’s backstory. Pat Addiss had asked him to write a song about abuse of the type that one may have experienced as a child. The nature of the abuse she referenced was so egregious that the individual blocked it from memory. However, suppressed events from childhood impact the evolution of an individual into adulthood. Sometimes, upon hearing of another’s similar abuse, individuals have reactions and have even fainted because, as can happen with physical pain, their psyche shuts down because the trigger is too intense. Pat Addiss encouraged David Friedman to create a song about such abuse and he did entitling it, “Something Happened.” The profound song which Sidney Meyer performed with great feeling is about one’s inner cry to confront suppressed truths and bring them to the light to heal. It’s an incredible work and in keeping with an evening of blessings.
Broadway Blessing 2019 culminated with “The Broadway Blessing” by Rabbi Jill Hausman and The Actors’ Temple of the Clergy of the Theater District. During the “Candle Lighting Ceremony,” Adam Shapiro (who portrays the Rabbi from the current production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish) sang “The Sabbath Prayer” in Yiddish and the Broadway Blessing Choir sang it in English. After the candles were lit, the Broadway Blessing Choir sang “Sisi Ni Moja-We Are One” (music & lyrics by Jacob Naverud). As the evening closed those in attendance joined the choir to sing the rousing “The Best of Times” from La Cage aux Folles (music & lyrics by Jerry Herman).
The Broadway/Off Broadway/Off Off Broadway year has begun in earnest. There is much to look forward to. Be blessed when you come to New York City to enjoy the fruitfulness of what the theater community offers in their amazing musicals, dramas, hybrid shows, festivals and innovative theater offerings.
Did you ever think you “knew” all you wanted to know about someone only to find out wonderous inspirations about them? No, I am not referring to our current president in the White House. I am referring to a feminine icon who has established herself as a tour de force for women through six decades, blowing past generational limitations and showing the way to “become” before Becoming (Michelle Obama’s glorious best-seller) was fashionable. Well, Cher, the Pop Goddess Warrior I never quite “got” is a superlative example of how no woman should allow anyone to tell her “it can’t be done!” It can be done! Regardless of how much the words are repeated, it is felt experience which sparks these words to life.. And it is the essence of this felt experience of overcoming that makes The Cher Show a celebration of women’s ability to thrive despite men telling them they cannot!
The musical hybrid (partial rock/pop concert, theatrical bio, cultural chronicle) sports a comprehensive book by Rick Elice and superb Music Supervision, Orchestrations and Arrangements by Daryl Waters. The must-see production is a mind blowing, entertainment ride down memory lane for the older crowd, and an earth shattering, eye-popping celebration of feminism (3rd and fourth wave) for the younger crowd.
Predominately, the production evidences how women (yes, there is only one Cher, but jump on the inspiration train, “bitches”) can rock it, take their power and express it with individuality, beauty and sometimes “foul-mouthed” grace. Especially now with the government shutdown standoff, the production is what we need to strengthen our comprehension of how women climb mountains though others attempt to pull them away from the top echelons of power (go Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Speaker of the House in 2019).
The Cher Show slam-bangs cultural fashions through the decades with spectacular Costume Design by Bob Mackie (portrayed by Michael Berresse). And it also pings the most meaningful signature songs of Cher’s life starting relevantly with “If I Could Turn Back Time” with the mature Cher (Stephanie J. Block) singing us back into the past to reveal her story through song.
Some songs are effected with striking dance numbers (“Dark Lady” is exceptional with Choreography by Christopher Gattelli) and staging. Actually, all of the songs really pop thanks to Daryl Waters, Jason Moore and the ensemble. There is the thrum and whirl of shimmering beauty as Bob Mackie’s gorgeous costumes, Lighting Design (Kevin Adams), Set Design (Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis) and the song and dance numbers uplift and rouse. Guaranteed, the staging, light show, musical arrangements, legendary Cher characterizations will rock you to the point that you will be keeping the beat with your feet, though your body’s in your seat, just barely! By the end you will be standing.
The show re-imagines the essence of Cher’s career highlighting critical moments in her life. The approach to understanding Cher’s development arc, is well fashioned by Rick Elice’s book. And it is reinforced by Billboard scoring the songs Cher hit recorded through six decades of Billboard charts. Aptly shepherded by director Jason Moore, The Cher Show relates Cher’s story in Cher’s grand, elliptical style through flashback and emotional flash-forward. The action is fast paced, not only covering an equivalent of three lifetimes but probing richly into what makes Cher “Cher,” if one is prepared to see it. Women will most probably note the emotional resonances more strongly than men.
Through brief, coherent snippets, Star unifies the show and directs the action. The excellent Stephanie J. Block portrays the mature Cher who speaks from a perspective of wisdom as she gives sage advice. Block whose voice is perhaps most like Cher’s, sings many of the sensitive, powerful songs in the Cher repertoire (i.e. “Believe”). Star introduces her younger selves Lady (the wise-cracking divorcee) and Babe (the sweet child and teenage songstress who meets Sonny) portrayed by Teal Wicks and Micaela Diamond. Each derivative of Cher is one element of a dynamic triumvirate that ushers in the whole portrait we need to understand the musical life and background of the legendary Diva. Together they establish the ethos of the performer as person and vice-versa. All three are vocal powerhouses. They reflect mannerisms, voice timber, comedic delivery, singing expressions and more as an echo of Cher, and not an impersonation.
In her discussions with her mom Georgia Holt (a beautiful job by Emily Skinner) we learn of her early suffering and how music helped her overcome. By degrees, we discover she had dyslexia which made her shy and isolated her at school as bullies teased her about her being stupid and her “weirdness” being an Armenian. Interchanges which occur throughout various turning points in each decade reveal how her mother was her pillar of strength to guide her until Cher stood on her own in her career. Skinner’s mom poignantly and humorously encourages her daughter to overcome through her singing. Cher affirms her mother’s importance in her life especially after her step-father leaves. Apparently, she never knew her father.
Interestingly, Sonny Bono is perhaps a father figure, at first, who helps her grow up until she realizes her complete dependence on him must change. Thus, the production moves to the when and where of the duo who became Sonny and Cher and the evolution of some of Sonny and Cher’s greatest hits (for example “Baby Don’t Go,” “I Got You Babe,”). Sonny’s friendly, vibrant personality (gorgeously voiced Jarrod Spector gives a nuanced, charismatic portrayal) devolves under the pressure of ambition and fear. When Sonny caves to greed and Napoleonic impulses which hamper their relationship, Cher discovers Sonny completely controls their financial arrangements. A victim of the male chauvinism of the time, Cher conquers her fears of being on her own and goes solo, a first step in her confrontation with the male dominated recording industry and glass ceiling barring her own vision of herself as an entrepreneur.
As a central point of Cher’s “becoming,” this segment of the production delves into the honesty and authenticity of the peaks and valleys of her relationship with Sonny, their money woes and excesses, and their emotional, psychological and personality differences that manifested during the making of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and after their divorce when they got back together, with the Sonny and Cher Show. The latter featured Cher’s new lover and eventual husband for a time, Greg Allman (Matthew Hydzik). Cher always remained friendly with Sonny because of their daughter Chastity. And indeed, though the reference is humorous, the production covers Sonny’s passing. Stephanie Block’s Cher intimates her love for him has a measure of forever in it, as she delivers her memorial speech at his funneral which is poignant.
After Cher determines to continue her solo career, she in effect jettisons relationships with famous singers and focuses on herself (“men are a luxury, like dessert.”) However, as this musical highlights the turning points in her life, we note her new iterations of her image and show business persona. She moves upward expanding her levels of success. Some of these activities include her accomplishments on Broadway, in film and on concert tours. Throughout, we understand how her love relationships fueled her artistic and creative powers. And this is so even after the love appears to be gone. For life goes on.
The musical works on a number of levels. One can merely sit back and enjoy the dazzling spectacle and resplendent sensory stimulation. One can also appreciate the more profound and clarifying moments which reveal how this woman dealt with problems, love, sadness, heart-break, financial valleys (Cher sold hair products on TV at one point) show business/celebrity horrors and her sickness (her Adrenal Glands weren’t working). In short the emotionalism of life’s torques and jarring shatterings that we all must confront, work through, learn from to enrich our souls, Cher experiences and uses for her evolving artistry. The musical numbers especially, reflect the highs and the lows, the career successes and comebacks. And floating off in the narrative slips Star, Lady and Babe. Together they reveal the loneliness, fear and upsets, they must confront with each other as pals. It works for me. How can an autonomous woman not give good counsel to herself after a few marriages, divorces, children, career upsets, etc.?
The songs represent Cher’s inner and outer life. Indeed, The Cher Show reflects that her singing helped to sustain her and take her to the next level in her career. And it is that which has made her legendary. She has topped Billboard Charts for six decades and garnered over 200 awards. The only one that has escaped her thus far is the Tony which she may win as one of the producers of The Cher Show. That would mean she has won an Emmy, a Grammy a Tony and an Oscar (EGOT), the grand slam of show business awards.
The irony is that as she evolves, as the production intimates, she must confront herself as a fantastical maverick icon of celebrity, who enforces her own kind of elusive magical realism. This makes for great copy, but it also moderates the chance for love and relationships. Block’s Star best establishes the emotionalism of this realization as she thrillingly sings “Believe.”
To its credit the production uncovers what lies underneath the fun, glamor, fashionable trend-setting songstress who became an actress, producer, author and philanthropist. Thus, in its strongest moments we see the peeling back of the layers to the raw core of Cher’s angst, depression and fear that happens whenever she comes to a crossroads. In the musical are the seeds of why Cher is alone but not lonely. She has discovered that she must be her own person away from Sonny and Greg Allman and Rob Camilletti (Michael Campayno). It is in the moments of misery, financial distress, heart break that we most empathize with Cher. And it is after these moments that she lifts herself up from the abyss and soars to inspire us once more and take us with her to another level.
The mythic humanity and pathos reflected in the music especially is what makes this a rich, nuanced show. But be careful. You may be caught up experiencing all the glittering excess, that you will miss the layers. How is it possible that we are seeing an older woman defy Hollywood age barriers, gender strictures and male domination issues? This show stomps down these overarching mores. It reveals Cher’s “belief,” and sheer force of will that she demonstrates in spades. This is especially so in the number “The Beat Goes On” which Micaela Diamond sings. The song symbolizes the beats of will, synchronized to destiny that brought Cher to accomplish the unthinkable in film. As as an “older” woman she won an Oscar and Golden Globes variously for Moonstruck, Mask and Silkwood. Ultimately, Cher learns autonomy is best and moves to her own beat which she drums out for herself again, and again, despite whichever love relationship she is in.
The Cher Show is breaking records of human happiness for both men and women at the Neil Simon Theatre on 52nd Street. It captures the essence of who Cher is, and who she always was and will be, a magical, one-of-a kind, self-defining woman.
Kudos (I loved the Hair & Wig Design by Charles G. LaPointe) to all who have made this a must-see production which runs with one intermission. For tickets you can go to the website, CLICK HERE.