‘Cheers Live’ aims to capture the Boston bar’s spirit on stage

SHARE ‘Cheers Live’ aims to capture the Boston bar’s spirit on stage

Grayson Powell plays Sam opposite Jillian Louis as Diane in “Cheers Live on Stage.” | John Halbach

Ranked at No. 18 in TV Guide’s 50 greatest TV shows of all time, the Emmy-winning “Cheers” is now inviting theatergoers to stop by for a pint at the Boston bar “where everybody knows your name.”

“Cheers Live on Stage,” a touring production coming to Chicago next week after opening in Boston, features some of the most iconic moments from the hit show’s first season. Audiences get another look at how graduate student turned waitress Diane Chambers (played on TV by Shelley Long and on stage by Jillian Louis) came to work at the Beantown watering hole, run by retired baseball player Sam Malone (originally Ted Danson, played here by Grayson Powell) and how their contentious relationship eventually bloomed into romance.

They are joined by co-bartender Coach (played on stage by Barry Pearl of the film “Grease”), feisty and opinionated waitress Carla Tortelli (Sarah Sirota) and barflies Norm Peterson (Paul Vogt from “MADtv”) and know-it-all mailman Cliff Clavin (Buzz Roddy).

Playwright Erik Forrest Jackson says he was tasked with transforming the hit sitcom to the stage because of his skills as a playwright and editor for the magazine Entertainment Weekly.

Director Matt Lentz “knew it was going to take a mixture of theatrical experience and editing to rejigger 22 hours of television into two hours of a stage show,” Jackson says. It was a daunting task. Scripts from the show are studied in both comedy and playwright classes.

“The biggest challenge was to not make it some cheap cut-and-paste experience,” Jackson says. “Anyone can pull up ‘Cheers’ on Netflix. The challenge was how do we translate into a worthwhile two hours of stage time. Ultimately, this is the story of misfits who create a found family, complete with squabbles, laughs and love in equal measure.”

‘CHEERS LIVE ON STAGE’ When: Sept. 20-Oct. 23 Where: Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut Tickets: $35 – $72 Info: (800) 775-2000; www.broadwayinchicago.com

To prepare for it, Jackson says he watched the first season of the show several times, before stepping away from the filmed episodes.

“It was necessary to remove the iconic images and performances of the actors,” he says. “I went back to the original scripts and came to it with fresh eyes. It didn’t feel dated at all. The humor is so rooted in character interaction and not pop culture.”

Jillian Louis, who is playing Diane in the stage show, says she appreciates the focus on the scripts and not her television counterpart’s performance.

Jillian Louis (left) rehearses “Cheers Live on Stage” with Sarah Sirota, who plays fellow waitress Carla. | Joseph Marzullo/Playbill

Jillian Louis (left) rehearses “Cheers Live on Stage” with Sarah Sirota, who plays fellow waitress Carla. | Joseph Marzullo/Playbill

“What Shelley Long did on the show was pure comedic genius,” Louis says. “Collectively, I think all of the actors on stage are attempting to capture the essence of these characters. We are paying homage. This is a love letter to the show.”

Jackson says he knew pretty much from the start what the arc of the stage show would be.

“It’s from when Sam and Diane first meet and — spoiler alert — eventually kiss and get together,” he says. “Beyond that, it was to cull the best and richest bits for the supporting characters and make sure the evening builds and has shape over two hours.”

Diane’s verbose nature was the most challenging aspect for Louis. “Diane is a talker. She talks a lot. She has long swatches of text which are so well written, I want to make sure I paid homage to what was written,” she says with a laugh. “It is one of the things people like about the character, and as an actress I am trying to be as word perfect as possible.”

Though the scripts weren’t written for the stage, the show does benefit a bit from being freed from the constraints of a filmed television show.

“On stage, you don’t have close ups or cut-aways,” Jackson says.

Adds Louis, “We are all in the moment, giving focus to where it needs to be. With Diane, she pretty much interacts with everyone throughout the whole show, though. It’s been fun to discover those moments on stage when on the show the camera isn’t on her.”

Jackson says fans should be pleased with the end result.

“We deliver on expectations and bring another level to it. The end result is you have this environment that has motion and life at all times.”

And to really give the bar life, several audience members at each performance are invited up on stage to be bar patrons.

“The audience on stage with you just brings a different kind of energy,” Louis says. “At the end, it is a play about belonging, and there isn’t a better way to show that than have audience members actually be a part of it.”

Misha Davenport is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor of Broadway World Chicago.

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