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Tony nominee Michael Berresse returns to Broadway after a 10-year absence in The Cher Show
Playing a part based on a real-life person is pretty common -- just look at all of the biographical shows running right now. But playing a part based on a real-life person who serves in a key creative position on the production? That's the unusual situation Michael Berresse found himself in when he landed the role of Bob Mackie in The Cher Show, a splashy new Broadway bio musical featuring eye-popping costumes by the actual Bob Mackie.
It would be impossible to tell the story of Cher without including Mackie. The 79-year-old designer has been crafting the star's jaw-dropping looks for more than half a century, from her early days as a TV funny lady on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, to her triumph as an Oscar-winning actress in Moonstruck, to her pop diva domination of MTV. (Because of Cher's many incarnations, three different performers play her at different stages: Stephanie J. Block, Teal Wicks and Micaela Diamond.) But while Berresse as Mackie gets to quip the light fantastic, dancing around color-coordinated racks of glorious clothes while spouting one-liners, he insists he's playing a character, not doing an impersonation.
"There's a big difference between Bob Mackie the character in the show and Bob Mackie the person in real life," Berresse says. "Cher, Sonny, Gregg Allman, Georgia Holt -- so many of the other characters were performers. Bob is not, so to have a singing and dancing version of him is already an alternate universe. He's an interesting dichotomy: You would think when you look at his clothes that he would be an out-there personality, but he's a pretty demure guy. In fact, in my first fitting with him, he told me, 'I would never wear anything you're wearing as me.' I can't go full-blown Paul Lynde -- it wouldn't be right to play him that way. It's important to me to capture his wit and mischief and joy, especially his joy. I was lucky enough to give a toast to Bob in his honor recently. I said, 'When I was a little boy, the words Bob Mackie were more than a name; they were a magical incantation, like abracadabra. When you hear it, you're flooded with color and light.' To finally know the man is humbling."
Mackie is one of three roles Berresse tackles in The Cher Show, which marks his return to Broadway as a performer after a decade-long absence. He admits that when he booked the gig, he was initially a bit nervous. "I thought, oh god, am I really ready to do this?" he recalls. "It's the going-back-to-the-gym sort of thing. I've had to readjust. But once we were up on stage, suddenly over 6,000 performances on Broadway came flowing back and I realized, I absolutely know how to do this."
That's no surprise to fans who remember Berresse's impressive rise from sexy, often shirtless chorus boy (he originated the role of Roxie's quickly dispatched lover Fred Casely in the long-running revival of Chicago) to scene-stealing second lead (he earned a Tony nomination for his athletic turn as Bill Calhoun in the 1999 revival of Kiss Me, Kate, in which he stopped the show nightly by scaling the set). His last Broadway role was in the 2006 mounting of A Chorus Line as Zach, the director who puts the aspiring dancers through the paces. Perhaps that experience helped inspire a change in focus, for the next time he came to Broadway was as the director and choreographer of the cult meta-musical [title of show], co-written and co-starring his then partner, now husband, Jeff Bowen.
Although Berresse has appeared in a handful of limited-run regional productions over the past ten years (Parade at LA's Mark Taper Forum, The Normal Heart at DC's Arena Stage), he's spent most of that time racking up directing credits. He helmed and choreographed another tuner from the [title of show] team, Now. Here. This, Off-Broadway in 2012, signed on as the associate artistic director of Vermont's Weston Playhouse Theatre Company last year and is involved in multiple in-development musicals, including one set to run at Roundabout in 2020.
If Berresse has a career strategy at all, it's reinvention. He actually originally got into acting on a whim: a competitive gymnast in his youth, he auditioned for Disney and ended up performing in the company's theme parks instead of going to college. He made his Broadway debut at age 26 in a revival of Fiddler on the Roof but quickly moved into larger roles.
Now with The Cher Show, he has graduated to character actor, turning in three distinct performances as men who helped change the trajectory of the title icon's life. In addition to Mackie, Berresse plays a misogynistic TV director (a composite character) and the late Oscar-nominated auteur Robert Altman, who gave Cher her first dramatic role in Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, initially on Broadway, then on film.
"No one knows it's me -- I guess people don't read their Playbills!" says Berresse, who looks completely transformed as Altman with a gray wig and fake paunch. "Stephanie and I love doing that scene. It's one of the moments when it becomes about two actors and a ghost light in a show that has so much thrilling production. It's a relief for the audience to just see two actors talk to each other."
Berresse says that out of all the roles he's played in his career, Altman is the one he most identifies with, which is fitting since he was also a director. "That is who I know myself to be inside -- someone far less performative who is profoundly affected by his connections with people," Berresse says. "I like that that scene is about him saying, 'I see you' to Cher. I feel like I've tried to do that in my life as a man being able to see people and encourage people. That's a great gift to me that one scene, a theatricalized version of me. I can live fully inside a very private part of myself in a very public way."
While Berresse is enjoying being back on stage in The Cher Show, directing seems to be his bigger passion these days. "As you get older, your life changes and your priorities shift," he says. "Although I always loved performing, I don't have the same need for that validation as I used to. It's hard to direct and act simultaneously. It takes a lot of time to develop projects, and it took a while to get people to take me seriously as a director. I feel I can combine all of my talents as a director and foster a safe, constructive and inspiring working environment. To be able to create that for other actors makes me happy."
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Michael Berresse.
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