Costumes are key to 'The Cher Show'

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday June 11, 2024
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Catherine Ariale as Lady, Morgan Scott as Star, Ella Perez as Babe, and the cast of 'The Cher Show' (photo: Meredith Mashburn Photography)
Catherine Ariale as Lady, Morgan Scott as Star, Ella Perez as Babe, and the cast of 'The Cher Show' (photo: Meredith Mashburn Photography)

For John Beltre, packing light is not an option.

As wardrobe supervisor for the national touring company of "The Cher Show," which opens a five-day engagement at the Curran Theatre on June 19, they oversee a wardrobe of more than 450 costumes composed of thousands of individual garments, accessories and pieces of jewelry.

Throughout each performance, every runaway bugle bead, escapee sequin, and bent feather must be carefully noted and attended to.

John Beltre, wardrobe supervisor for 'The Cher Show' on tour.  

"We travel with a couple of sewing machines," said Beltre in a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "Besides myself, there's a star dresser in the company, and between us we do whatever mending and repairs need to be done between shows."

It's during performances, though, that Beltre is at their busiest, overseeing the elaborate backstage choreography of nearly non-stop costume changes that whizzes the show's cast of 23 through six decades of glad rags and glitz.

Unseen performances
"In every city," Beltre said, "the theater hires ten local dressers who show up on the day of our first performance. In just an hour or so, I walk them through our system and that night, they're doing the show.

"Honestly, they're incredible," Beltre said, modestly ignoring the fact that they're the engineer of this fine-tuned machine. "I'm so impressed that they're able to learn this and get it down so quickly. I wish I had a film of some of the quick changes we do. It's so carefully coordinated. There are moments when we have as many as four dressers working on one of the Chers simultaneously to get her out of one costume and into the next in a matter of seconds." (Three actresses play the title role at different ages.)

New York-based Beltre, an established designer who has created costumes for productions of shows ranging from "The Addams Family" to Chekhov's "Three Sisters," said that in addition to providing stable income over the duration of the tour, working as a wardrobe supervisor lets them exercise different skill sets in his more creative endeavors.

"As a designer, I'm very creative and in some sense, chaotic," said Beltre. "I tend to let my mind go all over the place and go over the top. Wardrobe supervision rewards my brain in a whole other way. It's refreshing to work with such discipline and organization and it helps me bring a bit of order back to my design work. There's also so much to learn from working with costumes by a designer as great as Bob Mackie."

Ella Perez as Babe, Catherine Ariale as Lady, Tyler Pirrung as Bob Mackie, Morgan Scott as Star, and the cast of 'The Cher Show'  

Sheer engineering
Mackie, who designed Cher's best-known television and concert ensembles over the decades (along with memorable outfits for Carol Burnett, Liza Minelli, Bette Midler and many other A-listers), recreated and modified his original designs for "The Cher Show"'s Broadway debut in 2018.

That same wardrobe package is being used in the current touring productions, providing audiences with an unusually authentic sartorial extravaganza.

"There's so much I'm able to learn just by working with these costumes," said Beltre. "As an audience member, you're being dazzled and taken in by all the sparkles and glamor, but I'm fascinated by the insides of these costumes. They're amazingly constructed, and they're built to last. Inside of some of these pieces are all sorts of wires and big bulky metal pieces to create certain shapes.

"But on the outside, they just seem to flow and drape off the body. The actors make it look like they-re just floating across the stage, but a lot of these pieces — especially the beaded gowns — weigh 15 or 20 pounds. It requires a whole other kind of physical acting to move in these costumes and make them feel weightless. There's engineering to the designs that helps though: counterbalances and structural elements on the inside of the outfits that help the actresses hold postures that will make it easier to carry the weight."

Ella Perez as Babe and Lorenzo Pugliese as Sonny in 'The Cher Show'  

Becoming Cher
Ella Perez, a queer 23-year-old recent music theater graduate from SUNY Cortland, is playing Babe, the youngest version of Cher, on the national tour. It's her first ever professional role.

In a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Perez demonstrated a stunning ability to switch back and forth between her own chipper, upbeat voice and Cher's deep, dusky vocal tones.

"I didn't really know Cher's music before I was cast," Perez said. "I started studying how she enunciated each word and where she places her voice. A lot of her singing comes from the back of her mouth, and I have to keep my soft palate very raised. I paid attention to her vowel sounds and how she moves her mouth.

"Early on, I think I was slipping into a sort of Jennifer Coolidge sound, but after a few weeks, I felt like I had it down pat. I feel like now I can just slip into my Cher voice whenever I want. I think there are cast members who have no idea what my own natural singing voice sounds like."

Despite her skill at vocal mimicry, Perez didn't hesitate for a moment when asked what was most helpful to her in taking on the role of Cher.

"It's the outfits," she said. "I'm a very casual person in my day-to-day life. It's impossible for me to be Ella when I put that stuff on. My posture straightens, my chin lifts. I remember in tech when I put on those costumes for the first time. It changed everything for me. I found myself making different choices and actually sounding different when I put on those costumes.

"At first, it was a little surprising how heavy the beaded dresses are. I had to learn certain choreography where I would emulate the way the dress material moved! But I'm used to it now. They're actually comfortable for me, like little weighted blankets."

'The Cher Show,' June 19-23. $46-$144. Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St. (888) 746-1799.

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