“What’s your grandmother doing tonight?”
With that, Cher, now 70, launched into the heart of her show at The Theater at MGM National Harbor Friday evening, proving that while age may be just a number, and that time indeed has its way with all of us, the spirit of musical joy and professionalism that has accompanied her half-century-long showbiz career will continue as long as she wishes it to.
And judging by the throngs of appreciative fans gathered at the 3,000-seat venue at the casino on the banks of the Potomac in Oxen Hill, Maryland, they will keep showing up as long as she does.
Opening her “Classic Cher” mini-residency at the MGM National Harbor — with dates in March, August and September — the diva took the stage Friday evening supported by a five-piece band and a troupe of backup dancers as she sang her way through a revue of some of her biggest hits as well as some surprise covers.
Cher’s show, which is bouncing back and forth from her other residency venue at the Park Theater at Monte Carlo in Las Vegas throughout 2017, is nothing short of a big-tent production, with strictly choreographed dance numbers, costume chances and special effects such as an animatronic elephant making an appearance in the show during the song “Gayatri Mantra.”
This is, it must be said, not a concert but a show, meaning “Classic Cher” is far less about spontaneous live performance than by-the-book production. Which is fine, as it is incredibly well executed and professionally managed, but much like Madonna’s concerts, the show is staged down the finest element. This is indeed Vegas-style theatrics, done well, but it unfortunately doesn’t allow for a greater connection between performer and audience.
As the curtain opened, Cher descended from the ceiling of the theater on a litter in a blue dress and large black hair wig as she launched into “Woman’s World.” Joined at stage by her backup crew, Cher strutted in classic diva fashion, to the delight of the attendees. However, she seemed to have forgotten to hold the microphone close enough to her face to not wreck the illusion that she was largely lip-synching the opening number — not that her fans seemed to mind.
However, deeper into the set, her vocals were thankfully better on display, and even the auto-tune was limited as she seemed to find her groove on “Strong Enough” and “All or Nothing.”
It was at this point that Cher took a break to come center stage and thank her fans for continuing to come out over the decades. She then related an anecdote about turning 40 in 1986, and receiving a call from Jack Nicholson claiming that she was perhaps too old and unattractive to appear in the “The Witches of Eastwick” beside him. Fighting back the tears, she then enjoyed a birthday cake with her family.
Unfathomably, that was three decades ago, and the chanteuse drew a thundering round of applause upon telling her fans she is now a septuagenarian — and which led into her “grandmother” quip.
She sounded a note of despair at that time of her life, saying she was living in a hotel and had a huge bill for her unpaid stay. David Letterman had continually invited her on to his show, but she had rebuffed him for some time — then finally consented when asked his producers to pony up the cash for her hotel stay. She then related the story of her rather notorious appearance on his show, during which she had some choice words for the former “Late Night” host.
The theatrics and backup dancers took a backseat during a rendition of ‘60s songs from Cher, two of them her famous duets with late ex-husband Sonny Bono. Using archive footage of her former TV co-host — later the mayor of Palm Springs and Republican congressman — Cher sang along to old film of Bono on “The Beat Goes On” and their megahit “I Got You Babe.”
The stage magic was back for songs like “Dark Lady” and “Welcome to Burlesque,” the latter from the musical film she made in 2010 alongside Christina Aguilera. As she had done in between previous tunes, Cher shifted costumes for nearly every song, donning all manner of headdress and colorful dresses for each ensuing trip through her catalog as videos of her from across her career played in between songs.
Some of the most heartfelt episodes entailed Cher performing covers of the works of other artists. She ran through a spirited, uptempo rendition of Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do” early in the show, and then later, during a costume change, footage rolled of Cher discussing her appreciation for Elvis Presley — including video of her dressing up as the King to rock through an uptempo rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” — and discussing her fondness for the Memphis sound.
Her pianist then began the unmistakable ostinato from Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis,” and Cher emerged to perform the seminal 1990 song with its travelogue of Beale Street, Graceland and its triumphant backing gospel choir.
Not done with a travelogue back in time, the backup dancers returned to help her out on the Beverly Everett doo-wop classic “Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss),” which she also performed on the soundtrack from her film “Mermaids” from 1990.
Returning after yet another wardrobe change, Cher appeared in the accoutrements of her late-‘80s vestments, not longer after which she leaned into a high-energy rendition of her hit “If I Could Turn Back Time,” the 1989 rock ballad in which she sang for the rafters alongside the nostalgia that has kept the swinging song a favorite of audiences for decades.
The curtain closed at the conclusion of the hit, but Cher and her ensemble returned to bid the audience a fond adieu on the high note of her 2001 danceable lament “Believe,” a sort of crooning for the heavens that sounded a note of optimism in the years immediately following the death of the father of her son, Chaz.
Cher’s “Classic” show can be seen at the MGM National Harbor through the end of March. And if the opening salvo of her residency on the Potomac is any indication, the 70-year-old’s performances will continue to bring in the audiences both past, present and future.
For tickets for “Classic Cher,” visit Ticketmaster.com.