by Mo Brady
Show-stopping moments don’t just evolve out of thin air. Rather, they are the result of years of creative development matched with unparalleled talent. This kind of theatrical alchemy is on display nightly in The Cher Show when Ashley Blair Fitzgerald takes center stage.
The Cher Show features dozens of the iconic artist’s songs, including a mesmerizing rendition of “Dark Lady,” the title track from her 1974 album and one of her four #1 singles on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. While the show is structured as a concert with the three actresses playing Cher, “Dark Lady” is the only song where an ensemble woman takes on a character made famous by the show’s titular star.
Playing the aforementioned woman in black, ensemble member Ashley Blair Fitzgerald is mesmerizing in “Dark Lady.” Dancing with and being lifted by the show’s seven male ensemblists, the song features the show’s most athletic physical partnering, infusing it with a tango base.
Fitzgerald comes to the production with the wealth of dance styles in her repertoire. She performed across the country dancing the works of both Twyla Tharp (Come From Away) and Bob Fosse (Fosse). Also a veteran of two production musicals (Gigi and On The Town), Fitzgerald joined the company of The Cher Show’s pre-Broadway lab shortly after giving birth to her daughter in 2017.
Once she was brought into the cast, Fitzgerald and the company worked for an entire week to develop the song’s staging. Throughout the week, each ensemble girl had a work session with the men’s ensemble and choreographer Christopher Gattelli. “With Chris’ guidance, we all helped each other create different lift sections,” remembers Fitzgerald. “So in a beautiful way, this piece really started with the ensemble of the lab.”
After the show’s out-of-town tryout in Chicago during the summer of 2018, Fitzgerald worked with Gattelli and his team to continue developing the number. Once the show began rehearsals for the Broadway production, Gattelli brought in an Argentine tango specialist who “provided a beautiful authentic style that was just the cherry on top,” according to Fitzgerald.
In performing that number, Fitzgerald’s movement style is swift and assured. She seems completely in control of the men she is dancing with. While the choreography includes many jaw-dropping moments, each step is dependent upon the one before it. If one step goes awry, sometimes the rest of the dance can be derailed. “The challenging part is figuring out how to stop that derailment,” Fitzgerald admits. “When mistakes have happened, we all have to use a laser-like focus to pull through. It’s pretty amazing to experience.”
Not only did the choreography involve a lot of advance preparation, Fitzgerald works before each performance to be both mentally and physically prepared. An hour before each show begins, Fitzgerald creates a makeshift ballet studio in the basement of the Neil Simon Theatre, home of The Cher Show. For thirty minutes, she gives herself a full ballet barre, as well as a set of bridges, stretching and crunches to prepare. After the show’s first act, she continues to prepare by repeating the training. Just before she takes the stage for “Dark Lady,” she runs through the dance’s challenging sequence of choreography, along with a prayer for the dance to run smoothly.
All of that preparation pays off, as the number wows audience from start to finish. The choreography is expertly sequenced, so that each set of movements outshines the last. When I saw the show during previews, moments of “Dark Lady” literally had the audience gasping. At its end, “Dark Lady” legitimately stopped the show and received the biggest applause of any number that night.
While the number is satisfying to perform throughout, Fitzgerald’s favorite moment of the song is actually the very first. At the top of the number, the men’s ensemble line up creating a tunnel formation, each offering her a light for her cigarette as she proudly travels downstage. “I love this moment because it gives me time to mentally transform into this character,” she reveals. “In that moment, I feel the audience and I breathe as one, and then I take them on the journey.”