There’s an old rule in show business: “If you start big and finish big, the audience will forgive everything in between.” Clearly, the creative team behind The Bodyguard: The Musical have adhered to this principle as the jukebox tuner makes it North American debut at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
Based on the 1992 film of the same name, the stage treatment follows the same plot: Rachel Marron (Deborah Cox) is a sassy multi-award winning pop diva who needs a dash of gratitude in her attitude. When a creepy stalker (Jorge Paniagua) slips an ominous note in her dressing room, the “sh** gets real” (as the kids like to say). Enter Frank Farmer (Judson Mills), a former secret service agent hired to overhaul security on Marron and her estate. Farmer is a stoic figure, void of much obvious emotion who quickly forms a bond with Marron’s son, Fletcher (Douglas Baldeo) and her sister, Nicki (Jasmin Richardson). At first blush, Marron is skeptical of Farmer and gives him the ‘ole, “I don’t know who you think you are but you ain’t sleepin’ with me” bit. Which of course means that by the end of the show, (spoiler alert!), they’re gonna end up in the sac. Complications arise when Nicki falls for the same man. Do either of our leading ladies walk off in the sunset with the man of their dreams? Well, I won’t reveal too much. Does good prevail? Duh!
The show begins with a literal bang and glides energetically into “Queen of the Night”, a driving pop/rock number which Rachel is performing at one of her concerts. Karen Bruce’s choreography, both here and throughout the show is sexy and athletic and her beautiful, fit ensemble provide plenty of eye candy. The remainder of the show is mostly a “Best of Whitney Houston” album. Houston of course, starred in the Lawrence Kasdan directed film. All of the familiar songs from the soundtrack are here: “I Have Nothing”, “I’m Every Woman”, “Jesus Loves Me”, “I Will Always Love You”, and a touching duet arrangement of “Run To You”, sung between Rachel and Nicki. Other classics not from the movie or soundtrack include “Million Dollar Bill”, “So Emotional”, “One Moment in Time”, “All the Man That I Need” and so many others. With a feel good finish, Cox and cast send the audience off into the night but not before encouraging a sing along of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” a tune so infectious it should be served with antibiotics.
It would be unfair to compare anyone to the late Whitney Houston. Her inimitable talent was arguably one of the best we’ve ever had. Cox is well aware of that but has stated that she wants to “bring her own spirit to Rachel Marron and create something very different.” She has succeeded admirably in that sense and commands the stage like a true pop star. It’s not that far of a stretch given Cox’s Grammy nominated career and previous leading stage roles in Aida and Jekyll and Hyde. She balances Marron’s mean streak with the right amount of vulnerability and love. Mills is appropriately static but embodies a tough exterior with teddy bear warmth. Richardson is particularly soulful and endearing as the sister living in the shadows of her star sibling. Her voice is a rare jewel and we can only hope that we hear more from her.
Bookwriter Alexander Dinelaris has been saddled with the unfortunate task of adapting this rather schmaltzy story to the stage and the dialogue often feels forced and unrealistic. Basically, we’re all just waiting for the next song. He is able to craft the script to fit the songs, but the set-ups are quite obvious. To his credit, this material is not Leo Tolstoy. It’s more like a television movie of the week. Lighting designer Mark Henderson and Video designer Duncan McLean only add to the sap factor with black and white projections that resemble a budget Dior ad.
Ultimately, Director Thea Sharrock has provided us with plenty of nostalgia and fun, fluffy entertainment. For the seasoned theatergoer, eye rolls and occasional weariness are certain to occur. For those seeking a frivolous night of theater, the paraphrased lyrics to the opening number capture it best:
“It’s got the stuff that you want, not much of what you need, but more than enough to make you drop to your knees”. Sometimes, that’s all the doctor ordered.