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Ten years ago, Cher was a superstar on the run from her past. Sporting pink leopard-skin skirts and shaggy bangs, the then-34-year-old singer was fronting a new-wave group called Black Rose. In a series of hilariously inept efforts to go incognito, she'd leave her famous name off marquees and pass over herself during the band-member introductions at the end of shows. So determined was Cher to shed her prime-time TV image and be accepted as a Deborah Harry-style rocker that she even adopted at times a punky, foul-mouthed persona. Handling one heckler in an L.A. club who needled, "Hey Cher, where's Sonny?," the testy "no-name" star spat back, "He's at home--fucking your mother!"

In those safety-pin-in-cheek days, Cher surely would have sold her soul for the ability to inflict mass amnesia on the record-buying public. "A lot of people began laughing the minute they heard my name," complained Cher to Rolling Stone after a typical concert reception. "The square people think I'm too hip and the hip people think I'm too square."

By the late Eighties, however, a new generation of rock fans--kids who had never seen this fortysomething looker sing "Half Breed" on horseback in a Bob Mackie headdress--had replaced the cynical new-wavers. Suddenly, buoyed by a string of hard-rocking pop hits and certified hip by her romantic liaison with Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora, Cher seemed to be starting over on top with a clean slate. If her image carried any historical baggage in the minds of these new, young fans, it was as a kind of pre-Eighties Madonna. An outspoken, funny fashion chameleon with a good voice and a great pair of tattooed buns. And far better acting credentials than the Material Girl to boot.

Ironic, then, that Cher would choose to open shows on her current tour (which stopped last Friday at the ASU Activity Center) by showcasing her crimes against coolness. She's put together a giant-screen video montage displaying the very images that once made her a rock laughingstock: The kitschy costumes and schmaltzy skits clipped from the old Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. The over-the-top production numbers that made her own Cher variety show the tackiness barometer by which all Seventies rock abominations were measured. "Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves," with full go-go-dancing-harem choreography. "Dark Lady"--animated!

Of course, besides giving Cher the McCartney-style living legend build-up, the clips serve a subtler purpose. By unreeling those chestnuts on tape, Cher spares her new band of crackerjack hard rockers the loathsome duty of having to bop through "You Better Sit Down Kids" or "The Way of Love" for all the faithful oldsters who might otherwise holler them out.

But her new songs, culled from the million-selling comeback albums Cher and Heart of Stone, are given the same extravagant production-number treatment as the oldies on film. For "We All Sleep Alone," Cher's seven dancers envelop the star in a giant, wind-machine-blown bed sheet while executing elaborately choreographed steps. During her cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Tougher Than the Rest," a genuine pool table is elevated fourteen feet into the air as costumed toughs shoot a little eight ball to the beat. And in the show's most shamelessly Vegas-style number, a male dancer in startlingly authentic Cher drag lip-synchs the first verse of "Perfection"--only to be joined by the real Cher moments later and then chased around the stage by a King Kong-size toothbrush and a gargantuan guitar.

It's as if Cher--just when she's finally been given a chance to bury her schlocky show-biz stigma--has suddenly developed a severe case of nostalgia.

And here's the real surprise: It's fresh. While she was busying herself with movies and waiting for everyone to forget her garish variety-hour approach to rock, the Cher style of showmanship became state of the art. Her two biggest competitors on today's concert circuit, Madonna and Janet Jackson, each are touring with comparably overblown extravaganzas. Madonna's got a big red bed, trunks of designer costumes and a chorus line of shirtless male dancers wearing outrageous pointed bras. Jackson's employing six dancers, an illusionist and a fireworks crew. Until the ASPCA recently protested, she even was trucking around a 200-pound black panther. Even rapper M.C. Hammer, another big concert draw this summer, is touring with a 31-member troupe heavy on the choreography.

The Cher show as status quo? It ranks right up there with other never-thought-you'd-see-it events like the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the comeback of Donny Osmond.

HOW DID IT HAPPEN? Well, nine years of MTV certainly didn't hurt. You can see it in the eyes of all the concertgoers who spend more time gazing up at the giant video screens than focusing on the little human figures on-stage. All those giant props and gyrating dancers may look out of place on a rock concert stage, but up on the screens, it's an awesome live video.

"I like it that she had the dancers and the video screen giving you something to look at all the time," exclaims a woman in her mid-twenties immediately following Cher's one encore. "There was never a draggy moment; even when she left the stage to do a costume change, a lot of the times you didn't even realize she was gone."

The cost of concerts today is another factor in the rising popularity of the major extravaganza. For $20 to $35 a seat, rock fans don't merely want to hear a good set of music; they wanna be dazzled. Of course, the increasing demand for these bonanzas is one of the main things driving ticket prices up; but it's too late to stop now. "Bigger" and "Better" are the box office bywords of today.

Then again, many major acts are becoming more showy and extravagant with their concerts simply because it's easier than ever to stage a cheap thrill. Alice Cooper, who drew fire in the Seventies for being the first rock act to play a Las Vegas main room, is one veteran who's excited over the increasing popularity of blockbuster theatrical shenanigans in concert tours. "Because of the music and movie industries being so intertwined today, we suddenly have access to all these movie special-effects people," he recently told New Times. "So anything I can conceive of right now, I can actually do. And that's a different situation from what we had in the Seventies. There were a lot of limitations back then. People weren't ready for it, for one thing. Now they almost expect it."

Amidst all the hoopla, it's easy to forget there was once a time when many major rock artists opposed the intrusion of big-time show biz flash on the concert stage. Cher unwittingly revives that debate when, midway through her set, she quiets things down to sing "an old song, by an old group"--the Eagles' "Take It to the Limit."

The invocation of the Eagles inevitably recalls the days when five guys in white tee shirts and jeans, with no dance skills, were enough to sell out stadiums. There's a subtle irony to be savored in that one moment of Cher's show, but the song clearly is included in the wham-bam concert mostly for its title. Before you know it, Cher and her energetic cast of dancers, video technicians and prop managers are at it again, taking it to the limit one more time.