Broadway is a business—and a bad one. Not only does it cost a horrifying amount to open a show there, but most Broadway productions flop, losing their investors’ money with fearful efficiency. How, then, do you persuade anyone not obviously demented to pour cash into a new one? One possible answer is to make it as much like a past success as is possible. That’s more or less what the creators of “Network” and “The Cher Show” have done: They’ve rummaged through the recycling bin and come up with two “new” shows that look fresh but are, beneath the frosting, as familiar as a stump speech.
Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St. ($49-$169), 212-239-6200 / 800-432-7250, closes March 17, 2019
The Cher Show
Neil Simon Theater, 250 W. 52nd St. ($59-$159), 877-250-2929
In the case of “Network,” Lee Hall’s stage version of the 1976 Paddy Chayefsky-Sidney Lumet film about a network anchorman (played in the film by Peter Finch and onstage by Bryan Cranston) who cracks up midway through the evening news and starts telling the truth, the frosting has been whipped up by Ivo van Hove, Europe’s most pretentious stage director. Working in close collaboration with Jan Versweyveld, the scenic and lighting designer, and Tal Yarden, the video designer, Mr. Van Hove has given us a TV-screens-and-Plexiglas production that looks thoroughly postmodern. The catch is that Mr. Hall’s script, set in 1975, is a faithful adaptation of Chayefsky’s screenplay, a once-prescient satire of the dumbed-down future of broadcast news. All of Chayefsky’s predictions having long since come to pass, “Network” is thus a musty period piece: The bomb has already gone off.
The reason why movie buffs continue to watch “Network” with pleasure is not the plot but the cast. Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall and Ned Beatty, all of whom were at the peak of their powers when “Network” was made, gave performances so potent that it’s a mug’s game to try to replace or evoke them. Mr. Cranston, who proved himself in “All the Way” to be a stage actor of the first rank, overcomes that obstacle by putting a personal spin (less crazy, more desperate) on the part of Howard Beale, the mad anchorman who exhorts the American people to open their windows and shout “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
Not so his colleagues, who are all quite competent but lack his weight and force, which has the unintended effect of turning “Network” into a one-man show. In addition, Tatiana Maslany, who plays Ms. Dunaway’s part, looks and sounds just like a perky, opportunistic millennial, which couldn’t be more wrong for the period in which the play purports to be set. If you’re willing to pay Broadway prices to see Mr. Cranston give a tremendous performance, there’s a chance you’ll go home happy. Otherwise, you might as well rent the movie.
As for “The Cher Show,” it’s a 2½-hour exercise in public self-love, a worshipful jukebox musical about the life and times of the woman whose program bio describes her as having been “a world-wide superstar and household name for more than 50 years.” Rick Elice, who wrote the book of “The Cher Show” after extensive consultation with its subject, has missed no opportunity to glorify her household name, or to suggest that Cher’s life should be viewed as the inspirational tale of a proto-feminist who overcame the lack of faith of the men in her life to become a “Goddess Warrior” (her phrase) by telling herself over and over again that “the song will make you strong” (her mother’s phrase).
The result may well be the glitziest, campiest musical ever to hit Broadway—the budget line for Bob Mackie’s costumes alone must surely have been big enough to send a another rocket to Mars—but one that is devoid of cleverness, much less wit. (Representative line: “See what happens when you high-kick fear in the butt?”) Indeed, the second act, in which we are hustled through Cher’s inevitable midlife crisis and ultimate resurrection at an unseemly clip, is a clunky piece of storytelling, though the first act, truth to tell, really isn’t much better.
Stephanie J. Block, Micaela Diamond and Teal Wicks impersonate Cher at different times in her life, and they all do it well, Ms. Block in particular. Close your eyes and you’d swear it’s her up there singing such painfully familiar hit songs as “I Got You Babe” and “Believe.” Beyond that, there’s not much more to be said for “The Cher Show.” None of the other cast members make much of an impression, while Jason Moore’s staging and Christopher Gattelli’s slick-surfaced dance numbers are eupeptic but bland. To be sure, I can’t claim to be a member in good standing of the target market for “The Cher Show,” and I don’t doubt that Cher has more than enough fans to keep it open. As jukebox musicals go, though, this one is a badly broken record.
—Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, is the author, most recently, of “Billy and Me.” Write to him at email@example.com.