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The Cher Show: Three Chers is better than one...

Pop diva, Oscar-winning actress and all-round icon, Cher is one of the select handful of performers so famous that she is known by a single name - though it takes three West End stars to play her in the musical telling her life story. Jane Hardy caught up with Debbie Kurup, who plays 'Star', in The Cher Show as it comes to Belfast

Debbie Kurup as Star in The Cher Show. Picture by Pamela Raith.
Jane Hardy

THE musical, The Cher Show, adapted in 2018 from Rick Elice's book on the star, requires not one, not two, but three performers to convey the full character of the woman once known as Cherylin Sarkisian Lapiere Bono Allman.

Debbie Kurup plays Star, the fully formed Cher, by now a one-name wonder like all genuine celebrities.

"It's hectic," she says, en route to the next venue on the tour. "We opened in April in Leicester, and have been to Sunderland (where the critic talked of shoehorning a long career into one night rather like Cher squeezing into her spangly outfits), to Hull, Sheffield and Manchester. The reaction's been amazing all over."

The Cher Show - directed by Arlene Phillips and choreographed by Oti Mabuse, no less - has now reached Belfast, where it plays at the Grand Opera House from tomorrow until Saturday.

Kurup rightly says that the grande dame of film, pop and comebacks is a good subject for the show.

"She's the most perfect protagonist for a play and has had quite a life," she says.

"She came from nothing, had two marriages, two divorces, has been bankrupt and recovered."

The musical's vibe is, of course, positive and boasts 30 hits. Kurup admits she was a Cher fan before gaining the role. "Oh yes, I always loved her music."

The goddess of pop is multi-talented and also a great screen actor. Debbie says: "She's spectacular in Moonstruck, for which she won the Oscar. I also remember watching Mask when she played the woman with a disfigured son and I related to that as a mother." Debbie Kurup has a daughter, Saffron, who is 16. "Would I let her go on the stage? Absolutely, if she wanted to, but I think she may get a sensible wee job. She's taking her GCSEs at the moment and did biology today."

The strength of Cher is something that emerges onstage, alongside the glitz and the costumes. "Cher represents such a strong woman, knowing what it's like to be a woman in a man's world."

Kurup adds that there have been times in her own career when she's been told to, "Keep your mouth shut, stand there and look pretty". She says she blocked out this treatment and kept her own salty thoughts about the guy speaking to herself. Cher had to fight quite a few potential setbacks too and in the show, we see her defy convention.

The songs carry the story, though, and Kurup says that she loves belting out Cher's hits. "I'm very lucky to be singing most of them. At the moment, I am really loving singing Just Like Jesse James. It's quite sexy and comes from a rich alto place," she explains. Plus, the song has got great lyrics which describe our hero as a "small town dude with a big city attitude".

That's pretty much the Cher Kurup plays. "You see the other characters, Babe (played by Millie O'Connell), sometimes with tears in her eyes, and Lady (Danielle Steers), with stars in her eyes. I am in my forties and a bit wiser. You have a confidence in yourself by this stage and are a bit more in control."

Sartorially, she also needs control of the costumes which touch on Cher's Las Vegas and Turn Back Time era. They're bold, as they were in real life, and Kurup sports one or two characteristic thigh-skimming outfits. "Cher's wardrobe here doesn't feature the original Bob Mackie costumes but Gabriella Slade's versions, bringing to what we wear a suggestion of what she used to wear. It is a risqué wardrobe."

On a more serious note, Cher's journey was not always easy although the show does not overly focus on the tough times. One difficulty was being bullied as a kid, another was the breakdown of her marriage to Sonny. The I Got you, Babe optimism sadly didn't last. Yet her star quality carried her through.

Kurup's own trajectory is also impressive. Born to an Indian father and an English mother, she reveals that her childhood wasn't totally easy and draws parallels with Cher's life.

"Her dad was Armenian, she has some Cherokee in her background, and is mixed ethnic origin. I feel stepping into the role of Cher fits well with me," she says.

"Part of the view of a mixed race child was racial discrimination and I had a lot in Sunderland back in the early '80s."

But then the Kurups moved to Hendon in north London, and Debbie's talent began to be recognised.

She says now: "I came from a dance background, but always had a voice. At 17, I went to an open audition I'd found advertised in The Stage. It was a bit of a cattle call with hundreds of others, but I got an agent. And learnt while working."

Her CV covers taking the lead in The Bodyguard musical ("I loved being part of the original casting and creating something new..."), working in shows like Anything Goes and Sweet Charity. The performer has happy memories of playing in the Grand Opera House - "We did Fame in 2002, Boogie Nights later on. Belfast is so cool".

Asked why musicals are now the dominant genre in the West End, on Broadway and indeed in some of Belfast's theatres, Kurup says: "Because it's such a mixed art form, telling stories through song and dance. They also bring forward talent."

You have to wonder whether it's tough keeping the show fresh when you are on the road for weeks or months, changing theatres with the speed of an EasyJet turnaround. "I'm 25 years in my career and it is part of your discipline as an actor. Of course, the audiences vary. But you have to listen, listen, listen to your onstage partners and if you're in the moment on the night, it will be fresh."

Lockdown was hard for the arts sector and Kurup pays tribute to the flexibility of her profession. "Mentally it was really tough as everything was taken away. It wasn't just a job and income that was taken away but our need to communicate," she says.

"Performers feel lost if they can't reach out to people. But creatives are very good at diversifying and thinking outside the box."

Kurup certainly diversified, turning to her culinary skills. "I created a cookery channel, Kurup's Kitchen, not to make money but to improve my presenting skills. I love cooking and would sing as well. Also we did a murder mystery musical."

She says that it was lovely to spend time at home with her daughter and husband, Steve Arlus, a music director working on Back to the Future.

Apart from enjoying 1930s and 1940s music - "Bonnie and Clyde is my happy place" - Debbie Kurup mentions one of her proudest roles, in Conor McPherson's Girl from the North Country.

"I played Mrs Nielsen - what a powerful part - opposite Ciarán Hinds, who is incredible, such an actor of substance. It's about the music of Bob Dylan and we were in the Old Vic. It's now playing in Australia and on Broadway, but I think 'I was there first'."

:: The Cher Show runs at the Grand Opera House in Belfast until Saturday May 28 (goh.co.uk).

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