Cher has been called every accolade from the Goddess of Pop to the “Single Greatest Gay Icon of All Time,” and yet, going into the Heartland Men’s Chorus’ “After All,” I worried how, Cher’s 60 years in show biz notwithstanding, an all-Cher show could possibly follow the Whitney tribute mounted by Heartland last spring. No doubt this is a me problem, but pre-show I could confidently recall only three Cher hits, versus Whitney’s solid gold dozen.
But life is not a Diva-Off, and Heartland made a persuasive case for Cher as nothing less than the role model we need: an enormously gifted, deeply flawed, ever-evolving, fully human divinity who has triumphed huge and fallen far, faded into obscurity time and again, been underestimated and ridiculed, made mistakes, taken risks, apologized, defied, started over, reinvented, come back bigger, and never been afraid to tell the truth, even to herself.
In a bold move, the Heartland spent down one of Cher’s biggest hits right out of the gate, with a rousing, full-force, full-chorus thesis statement of “If I Could Turn Back Time” that set the stage for a rewind of Cher’s epic career. 1967’s “The Beat Goes On” was beautifully illustrated with archival footage of its turbulent moment, from Dick Clark to Civil Rights to the youth movement. The video was projected onto a translucent scrim that revealed glimpses of the singers through the moving images, an effective melding of past and present. “I Got You Babe” was elevated by gorgeous solos by Aden Eilts and Wilson Welch, while colorful numbers like “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves,” “Dark Lady” and “Bang Bang” gave the Heartland ample opportunity for its trademark playful theatricality. “After All” tied up the first half with a neat thematic bow and an incredible duet by Justin Perryman and Anthony Robinson that enthralled this closet Peter Cetera fan.
To my mind, some of the program’s songs remain more strongly associated with their originals than the Cher covers, in particular Abba’s “Super Trouper” (despite the Mamma Mia franchise) and Mark Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” (a song I’m always thrilled to hear, for any reason), which opened the second half. Randall Humbird, Jr.‘s soulful solo (“Tell me, are you a Christian, child?” and I said “Man, I am tonight.”) led the congregation into the intercessory prayer of “Song for the Lonely,” the stirring sermon of “Strong Enough,” and the altar call of “Believe.”
That’s right. For “Believe,” Cher’s biggest hit of all, Heartland’s Artistic Director Shawn Cullen made the idiosyncratic decision to swap delirious Saturday night club remix for sober Sunday morning Church of Cher. Darrik Moss gave an aching account of the down-tempo, minor-key Adam Lambert rendition, a version that never, ever resolves to major-key triumph, and instead forces us to stop dancing for an ever-loving minute and face the insistent existential questions in the lyrics:
Do you believe in life after love?
(after love… after love… after love…)
Do you think you’re strong enough?
After all is said and done,
are you gonna be the lonely one?
Similarly, when stripped of its heavy synthetic percussion and Autotuned vocals, the lyrics of “A Different Kind of Love” shone through, closing the show on a unabashedly loving and uplifting note:
These are universal truths:
We’re all part of the light that flows through everything.
This is a different kind of love song
A higher plane we can flow on.
Thoughtful lighting design (Alex Perry), video projections (Shawn Cullen), and costume changes (Patrick Smith) kept the show varied and lively, while the featured dancers (Russ Czeschin, Jonathan Doram, John Edmonds, Scott Ferrell, Jim Jegede, Richie Johnson, David Loethen, Calvin Quattlebaum, Danny Shervington-Bair, Jon Tyree, Mitch Weber, choreographed by Valerie Martin) added energy and fun throughout. I can imagine a movie montage in which Bob Mackie takes giant shears to their glittery but family-modest outfits and lets us see more skin, but that’s just being greedy. Also greedy: the hope (alive in my heart to the end!) that we’d be sent out the doors dancing to a surprise club reprise of “Believe.” (Alas, it wasn’t to be.) The chorus was warmly supported by the live band of Todd Gregory-Gibbs, Justin Henson, Cynthia Egger and Ian McLaflin, led on piano by the excellent Lamar Sims, whose musical taste and touch are always 100% correct.
There is nothing more life-affirming than two hours of a stageful of men, a hundred-plus strong, singing their hearts out in pure joy and total commitment. With this moving revival, Heartland gave the broken-hearted and battle-scarred, the regretful and lonely, a much-needed serving of old-time Cher religion.