Before the bad news, a bit of reassurance. “Cheers Live on Stage’’ is not likely to spoil any fond memories you may have of the original “Cheers.’’
But that’s about the best that can be said for the new stage adaptation at Citi Shubert Theatre, a sleek but hollow and exploitive exercise in nostalgia that relentlessly pushes every “Cheers’’ button it can find.
To watch TV’s “Cheers’’ in its early days was to have the exhilarating experience that episodic television at its best can give us, where we get to know original and unique characters at the same time the writers and actors are getting to know them. But that inspiration and invention have given way to mere impersonation, a dutiful trundling of our memories around the stage.
Remember that “Bizarro Jerry’’ episode of “Seinfeld’’ in which Elaine started hanging around with three guys who sort of looked like Jerry, George, and Kramer? That’s how it feels watching “Cheers Live on Stage.’’ Actors tricked out to look like Sam, Diane, Carla, Norm, Cliff, and Coach deliver familiar — and, yes, of course, well-written — dialogue from the TV show while channeling the mannerisms and vocal inflections that Ted Danson, Shelley Long, and the rest brought to their roles. (Because the stage adaptation draws from episodes in the first season of “Cheers,’’ there’s no Frasier, no Woody, no Rebecca, and, alas, no frozen-faced Lilith.)
Adapted by Erik Forrest Jackson and directed by Matt Lenz, “Cheers Live on Stage’’ trades on our affection for the classic Boston-based sitcom without ever really justifying its own existence. No attempt is made to reimagine the original “Cheers’’ (1982-1993) in this live stage version, which is launching a national tour here. No illuminating retrospective light is shed on what made ”Cheers’’ one of the pinnacles of television comedy.
Instead, what’s presented is essentially a Xeroxed copy. Or, rather, a sketchy, slapped-together attempt at a greatest-hits compilation.
There are other, deeper problems with this transfer to the stage that have to do with the structural anatomy of a sitcom. Even the best TV comedies of the “Cheers’’ era largely relied upon a formula: setup-joke, setup-joke. (A much wider variety of sitcom styles can be found today on television, home to numerous comedies that are blessedly devoid of laugh tracks.) The rigidity of the 1980s’ network sitcom formula is exposed in live stage performance.
In addition, episodic TV by its nature is designed to build momentum week to week. This was especially true of the first season of “Cheers,’’ which carefully and systematically ratcheted up the combative flirtation between Sam and Diane. But in a stand-alone stage production like “Cheers Live on Stage,’’ their romantic pas de deux lacks depth or tension. Everything feels rushed. With regard to other story lines, stray bits and pieces from the first season are awkwardly crammed together, loosely linked by banter among the bar’s regulars.
Jillian Louis, who portrays the overeducated and lofty Diane Chambers (thankfully the real Boston contains no such pretentious figures, eh?) channels Long’s fluty voice to good effect while also conveying Diane’s mixture of superciliousness, haplessness, and strange likability. As the gruff, perpetually pregnant waitress Carla Tortelli, Sarah Sirota is a study in merry malice that would make Rhea Perlman (the original Carla) smile. The tall and lanky Grayson Powell comes reasonably close to the laconic-cowboy affect that Danson devised to play Sam, a former Red Sox pitcher, recovering alcoholic, and owner of Cheers.
Though the audience bellows “Norm!’’ each time he enters the bar, Paul Vogt’s portrayal of accountant and Cheers fixture Norm Peterson possesses little of the jaunty insouciance George Wendt brought to the role. This Norm just seems sort of sad. Buzz Roddy makes very little impression as know-it-all mailman Cliff Clavin, while Barry Pearl, as Coach, lacks the endearing quality of befuddlement that Nicholas Colasanto gave the character.
Of course, another prominent character is the Cheers bar itself. Here, it gleams invitingly enough to prompt a round of applause from the audience at the start of the performance (set design is by Michael Carnahan).
But a general aura of pointlessness hangs over the enterprise. “Cheers Live on Stage’’ never comes up with a persuasive answer to the threshold question of why patrons shouldn’t just stay home and watch a rerun of “Cheers,’’ which is, after all, a relatively recent TV show, one whose faces and voices remain very much alive in our cultural consciousness.
Those are the faces and voices I’ll remember, long after I’ve forgotten this misguided stage production.
CHEERS LIVE ON STAGE
Adapted by Erik Forrest Jackson. Directed by Matt Lenz. Presented by Citi Performing Arts Center and John Tobin Presents. At Citi Shubert Theatre, through Sept. 18. Tickets: $30-$75, 866-348-9738, www.citicenter.org