Chicago Theatre Review
Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Cheers Live on Stage – Broadway in Chicago
Mention the names of Sam Malone, Diane Chambers, Carla, Norm, Cliff and the Coach and almost everyone of a certain age will fondly remember these folks as familiar friends from eleven seasons of “Cheers.” NBC produced this highly popular TV sitcom between 1982 and 1993, which became part of their roster of “Must See Thursday” comedies. The Bull & Finch Pub, located in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, became the prototype for the television series, and eventually changed its name to Cheers when it became a popular tourist destination. The show went on to become a national phenomenon, winning 28 Emmy Awards 6 Golden Globes. Its characters turned into household names, with such a strong familiarity that they felt like everyone’s own personal friends.
Created by Glen and Les Charles and James Burrows, the sitcom, modeled after other popular shows like “MASH” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” sought to create another televised environment where a group of coworkers and their regular customers would interact as a kind of surrogate family. With Diane representing intelligence, class and sophistication, and Sam coming across as an Everyman character, these oft-at-odds opposites became television’s equivalent of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. While Diane was never at a loss for words and unsolicited erudite opinions, Sam was more soft spoken and seldom at a loss for beautiful women.
Norm was the epitome of the bar regular, the amiable good-ole-boy beer connoisseur, whose life revolves around his Cheers family more than his own. Coach Ernie Pantusso is the beloved father figure who evokes humor from his innocence, his ignorance of well-known facts and his continual befuddled forgetfulness. Brash, outspoken Carla Tortelli became the poster girl for the blue collar, working class, single mom. Between her volatile, Italian temperament, her irritation with Diane’s superior attitude and her continual attraction to good-looking guys, Carla provided the show with countless hilarious, snarky one-liners. Cliff, the annoying know-it-all, given to announcing his “little-known facts” upon entering Cheers, was a postal worker, who almost always appeared in his uniform. Seldom romantically involved with anyone, Cliff, who lived with his mother, was Norm’s best buddy and made the bar his home away from home.
This entertaining theatrical version of the TV show is based upon the massively popular sitcom. It’s a condensed version of the first two seasons, featuring characters and plot lines from the the show’s beginnings. Adapted for the stage by Erik Forrest Jackson and directed by Matt Lenz, with a reverence for the original, this warmly humane play is a series of episodes that seamlessly flow from one to the next. The production even opens and closes with that all too familiar theme song, co-written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo. All that’s missing are the commercial breaks.
The real star of this production is a meticulously detailed recreation of the TV set, designed with particular care and precision by Michael Carnahan. Every nostalgic element is there, from the massive, weathered oak bar, that dominates the scenic design, to the staircase that leads up to Melville’s Fine Sea Food Restaurant. Every minute element is included. This includes things like framed b&w photos of Red Sox greats hanging above the bar, faux stained glass windows that face the street, a jukebox tucked unobtrusively upstage and even the aging brick facade of the building in partial view. Completing the authentic look of this stage production are perfect 1980’s fashions, suitable to each character, created by Michael McDonald, as well the appropriate wigs, by J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova, that help transform this talented cast of actors into such iconic TV personalities.
The cast is terrific. Grayson Powell makes a handsome, easy-going Sam Malone. Powell has the look of a young Ted Danson, mastering his speech pattern and vocal nuances, as well as many of Danson’s physical mannerisms. As the play builds to a conclusion, Sam’s character metamorphoses into a much more determined man on a mission to win his lady love. As Diane Chambers, Jillian Louis also employs many of the physical qualities that Shelley Long brought to the role. Speaking in Long’s high-pitched, annoying, almost falsetto register, Ms. Louis uses her entire body to convey every line. While not exactly “the stick” that Carla likes to call her, Ms. Louis is a curvaceous beauty who looks great in her blond wig and period costumes. While the drama isn’t exactly Ibsen or Chekov, Diane is a lovely young woman who journeys from being a sad bride-to-be left at the altar of Dionysius to a happy woman who finds a new love. Although fans of this sitcom know exactly where this relationship is headed, it’s fun to think of these two sparring lovers as a reverse version of Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle.
Sarah Sirota is perhaps the best incarnation of her TV original. As Carla, Ms. Sirota looks and sounds exactly like Rhea Perlman, the actress who created this role. With the same diminutive stature, which she uses to her advantage, Ms. Sirota is a tower of power and passion and is responsible for a good many of the laughs. As the Coach, Barry Pearl is magnificent. He not only has the Boston dialect and speech pattern down pat, he completely channels Nicholas Colasanto’s wonderfully warm portrayal, a comic standard during the first three seasons of the TV show. Filled with wide-eyed honesty, sincere simplicity and unpredicted gullibility, Pearl provides much of the humanity and charm of this show. Paul Vogt makes a great Norm Peterson, occupying his usual seat at the bar, and evoking cries of “Norm!” from both the cast and audience upon each arrival. Buzz Roddy, while not exactly a stand-in for John Ratzenberger, has the pseudo superiority, hiding a latent inferiority complex, and the same strong Bostonian accent and pronunciation of Cliff Clavin.
The talented supporting ensemble provide atmosphere, with each actor playing several different characters. In particular, Jed Peterson is excellent as Harry, the slight-of-hand magician who haunts Cheers, trying to outsmart Coach and make a few bucks. Justin R.G. Holcomb is funny as an inebriated tour guide who finds any reason possible to lure his flock into the Boston bar; and Andrew Sellon is very good as Eric Finch, a secret British spy…or is he? Jeff Applegate is strong as Walter and Erin Mosher and Laura Woyasz are very good as Debbie and Cindy, all occasional occupants of Cheers.
A very enjoyable evening of laughs with an entertaining, episodic plot and winning characterizations provide a welcome trip down memory lane. Baby Boomers, in particular, will find this stage version of one of television’s most popular situation comedies a real treat. With no violence or profanity, here’s a story populated with uncommonly kind characters all searching for a little love and respect in this crazy world. Within this microcosm of society, where the beer flows freely, it’s comforting to finally find a place where everybody knows your name.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 21-October 23 by Broadway in Chicago at the Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St., Chicago.
Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, the BIC Ticket Line at 800-775-2000, at all Ticketmaster locations and at www.BroadwayinChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.