“Cheers Live on Stage” is a love letter to fans of the hit TV show, offering them one more opportunity to take a nostalgic stroll down the stairs to the Boston bar “where everybody knows your name,” but little else.
‘CHEERS LIVE ON STAGE’ Somewhat Recommended When: Through Oct. 23 Where: Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut Tickets: $35-$72 Info: www.broadwayinchicago.com
Diane Chambers (Jillian Louis) is a tightly-wound, academic elitist who finds herself both jobless and loveless when her boss and former lover leaves her at the bar. Sam Malone (Grayson Powell) is the bar’s owner. He’s an ex-baseball star whose once-promising career was cut short due to alcoholism. He offers Diane a job as a waitress and this doesn’t sit too well with the bar’s current waitress, the feisty and wisecracking Carla Tortelli (Sarah Sirota).
The other bartender, the somewhat forgetful Ernie “Coach” Pantusso (Barry Pearl), welcomes Diane into the make-shift family, which includes bar regulars like the perpetually down-on-his-luck accountant Norm Peterson (Paul Vogt), know-it-all mail carrier Cliff Clavin (Buzz Roddy) and grifter Harry “The Hat” Gittes (Jed Peterson).
Louis has her television counterpart’s vocal cadences and mannerisms down pat, and succeeds in crafting a Diane that is off-putting and snobby and yet loveable and enduring. She shares some chemistry with the tall and lanky Powell, but the sexual tension that was allowed to build over the course of the TV show’s early seasons simply cannot be condensed into a two-hour outing.
Sirota and Pearl come off the most well-rounded in terms of characters and, perhaps not surprising, garner the most laughs. One bit in which a patron asks Coach to check on the status of his reservation in the restaurant upstairs is probably the funniest in the show and Pearl plays the physical comedy of the scene for all it is worth.
Peterson also stands out for his work between the acts. Theater-goers are welcome onstage during intermission and Peterson remains in character throughout, entertaining these patrons with various magic tricks and cons and enabling them to get to know one of the lesser-known characters from the early seasons of the show.
Vogt’s Norm, however, is the biggest miss in the show. Yes, the audience is encouraged to welcome each of his entrances with a hearty “Norm!,” but — and this may be a testament to the iconic TV character immortalized by George Wendt — Vogt’s Norm never seems to rise above the level of melancholy sad sack.
Michael Carnahan deserves praise for recreating the TV show bar in every detail, from the sports memorabilia to the sign advertising Melville’s Fine Seafood upstairs. Michael McDonald’s costume designs are also spot-on, evoking the spirt of the ’80s from Sam’s rugby shirts and Docker shoes to Diane’s satin tops with bows.
Erik Forrest Jackson was tasked with whittling down an entire season of an iconic sitcom into a two-hour stage show and it proves to be a bit insurmountable. The show’s witty dialogue, characters and humor are all there, but Jackson and director Matt Lenz never really answer the question of why the stage version of a popular television show should exist. Moreover, transitions between scenes (and, in some cases, episodes) are particularly jarring in the first act. The second act is a bit smoother, but it’s helped along by the fact that the plot, in which Diane begins to date Sam’s wealthier and far more successful older brother, is from the two-part episode “Showdown” which capped the show’s initial season.
The character of Carla is also completely mishandled in the second act. Despite there only being three months between the first and second act, Carla appears in the second act well into her final term of pregnancy without so much as a comment or explanation from the wisecracking waitress or any of the close-knit family of bar patrons and staff. Fans will no doubt fill in the gaps from their memories, but if a work is to exist on stage on its own merits, they shouldn’t have to.
Misha Davenport is a Chicago-based freelance writer.