When Michael Berresse joined the cast of Broadway’s “The Cher Show,” he faced an unusual ― and possibly unprecedented ― challenge: portraying a living member of the musical’s creative team in the musical itself.
The Tony-nominated actor and singer plays fashion designer Bob Mackie in the musical, which charts Cher’s evolution from gangly teen to global superstar through 35 of her most beloved songs. Though the real-life Mackie has dressed the likes of Carol Burnett, Diana Ross and Madonna, he’s most associated with Cher, with whom he first began collaborating in the 1960s.
To the delight of “The Cher Show” book writer Rick Elice and director Jason Moore, Mackie signed on to replicate some of his outré designs for the stage production. The pair decided to acknowledge the designer’s six-decade presence in Cher’s orbit by making him a character in the musical, too, and tapped Berresse — a Broadway favorite whose credits include “Chicago,” “Kiss Me, Kate” and “The Light in the Piazza” — to play him.
“When I was a kid, the words ‘Bob Mackie’ were, to me, a magical incantation, more than a name,” Berresse told HuffPost. “My association was light and color and fun and sexiness and humor — all the things that Mackie’s work represents. Subconsciously, I had an attachment to him. It was about my formative development — about learning how to express myself, being able to access my humor, my joy, my sex appeal.”
Now playing at New York’s Neil Simon Theatre, “The Cher Show” is more of an ensemble show than a star vehicle, with three actresses (Stephanie J. Block, Teal Wicks and Micaela Diamond) playing Cher at different points in her life and career. As Mackie, Berresse gets two standout, scene-stealing moments. He appears as the ringmaster in a fashion show of iconic Cher looks in the show’s first act, and shows off some agile moves in “The Beat Goes On,” a high-octane, second act dance sequence depicting Cher’s 1980s rise to movie stardom.
Berresse’s objective with the role is to offer “a focal point” through which audiences can express their “love, praise and gratitude” to Mackie, who has never sought critical respect or fame in spite of his status as a fashion trailblazer and queer icon.
“The single most important aspect of Bob that I try to capture is his shimmer, his buoyancy,” he said. “But he’s also non-performative. He never in a million years thought he’d see himself as a character in a musical and he’s not the kind of person who would ask for that spotlight. I’m very happy to be the vessel that helps facilitate that.”
Turns out, the feeling is mutual. Mackie has said that he’s “very flattered” by Berresse’s portrayal, noting that the actor “can sing and dance, and he’s handsome, so that’s a good thing.”
Though the Illinois-raised Berresse boasts a natural stage presence, “The Cher Show” marks his first full-time Broadway stint in a decade. In recent years, he’s been primarily focused on film and television work, appearing in “The Bourne Legacy,” “The Knick” and “The Good Wife.” He’s turned his attention behind the scenes, too, directing the musicals “[title of show]” and “Now. Here. This.” His husband, Jeff Bowen, co-wrote and starred in both shows.
Together, the couple considers it “a blessing and a great luxury,” rather than a burden, that their creative passions overlap.
“No matter how much you love someone, it’s important to remember that they’re their own person, and if they’re an artist, their own artist,” Berresse said. “We have a lot of respect for each other as artists. If we had to feign our support for each other, it would be a whole other story.”
Looking beyond “The Cher Show,” Berresse expects he’ll head back to the director’s chair once again, and has several theatrical projects — namely, three new musicals and a play — in various stages of development. But he said playing a bold figure like Mackie has influenced him offstage, too, giving him “the opportunity to express my own priorities” such as finding future projects that will amplify “the ways in which the LGBTQ community is evolving and finding their voices” in the current political climate.
“I’m at a place where I feel a great deal of stability and confidence,” he said. “My work onstage has been a real joy. I think Bob had a lot to do with that.”