'The Bodyguard': Theater Review

Matthew Murphy
Judson Mills and Deborah Cox in 'The Bodyguard'
Cox's powerful pipes save the day in this by-the-numbers, dramatically thin screen-to-stage musical.
1/1/2017

R&B star Deborah Cox headlines this musical adaptation of the hit 1992 Kevin Costner-Whitney Houston film, featuring 16 songs originally recorded by the late singer.

An already thin plot becomes even thinner in the new musical adaptation of the hit 1992 film The Bodyguard, which starred Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston. Shoehorning no less than 16 songs recorded by Houston into its by-the-numbers recreation of the film’s thriller/love story plot, the show actually still manages to run shorter than its inspiration. Fans of the movie, and of the late pop diva, will no doubt respond warmly to this production, receiving its North American premiere at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse prior to a national tour. But anyone unfamiliar with the source material will come away wondering what all the fuss was about.

For this 2012 musical originally seen in London’s West End (where it’s currently playing in a revival), R&B star Deborah Cox assumes the beefed-up role of superstar singer-songwriter Rachel Marron, played onscreen by Houston. When Rachel is threatened by a stalker who sends ominous letters and then sneaks into her dressing room and steals a dress, her worried manager (Charles Gray) hires ace security expert Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) as her personal bodyguard. Frank has little interest in protecting a coddled celebrity — “It’s where all the bullshit is,” he points out — but agrees to take the job when he finds out that Rachel has a 10-year-old son.

Rachel, however, has little use for her stoic, macho protector, who cramps her style with his endless restrictions on her movements. That is, until he rescues her from danger while she’s performing in a crowded nightclub. Naturally, director Thea Sharrock (Equus) has the lead performers recreate the iconic image of the bodyguard cradling his charge in his arms. Rachel warms up enough to ask Frank out on a date — “Only if you want to,” she says coyly — and soon they’re romantically involved.

Adapting Lawrence Kasdan’s script, Alexander Dinelaris, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Birdman, heavily plays up the plot’s thriller aspects. At times, the show feels more like a horror film, with the heavily muscled Stalker (Jorge Paniagua) frequently seen up to no good in Duncan McLean’s expansive video projections. A newly added subplot, involving Rachel’s sister and songwriting partner Nicki (Jasmin Richardson) vying for Frank’s romantic attentions, does little to enhance the narratively threadbare proceedings.

But that will hardly matter to those who want to hear the procession of Houston hits, including ‘How Will I Know,” "Greatest Love of All,” “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” “Run to You,” “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” and a certain smash single written by Dolly Parton. Amusingly, the first rendition of the iconic “I Will Always Love You” is performed by Frank at a karaoke bar (one of the few scenes in the show with any emotional resonance), in which he demonstrates his utter inability to sing a note. Naturally, it also figures in the stirring finale, with Cox’s formidable pipes doing it full justice.

Cox, whose previous theatrical credits include leading roles on Broadway in Aida and a 2013 revival of Jekyll & Hyde, admirably handles the daunting challenge of filling her predecessor’s considerable shoes. Mills, whose extensive film and television credits include a regular role on the old Chuck Norris series Walker, Texas Ranger, is suitably rugged and charismatic as the taciturn Frank, and the gorgeous-voiced Richardson is excellent as the sister with whom Rachel has a sibling rivalry.

Sharrock’s busy staging features extensive use of distracting video projections, including a cheesy montage of romantic moments between Frank and Rachel that merely shows us things we’ve already seen live. The action sequences are neither convincing nor thrilling, and the frequent use of sudden loud noises to drum up suspense mainly smacks of desperation.

The songs are both woven into the storyline and performed in concert-style production numbers, with Karen Bruce’s energetic choreography replicating the style of elaborate pop concerts. Tim Hatley’s glossy sets and costumes, the latter showcasing the physical attributes of the often skimpily dressed background dancers, feel equally authentic in their artificiality.

Like so many screen-to-stage adaptations, The Bodyguard has lost something in translation. But that didn’t seem to bother the audience at the Paper Mill, which rousingly responded to the inevitable mega-mix encore. That features the entire ensemble exuberantly reprising “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” providing the opportunity for even the ramrod-postured Mills to show off some slinky dance moves.

Venue: Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, New Jersey
Cast: Deborah Cox, Judson Mills, Douglas Baldeo, Alex Corrado, Charles Gray, Jonathan Hadley, Kevelin B. Jones III, Jorge Paniagua, Jasmin Richardson
Book: Alexander Dinelaris, based on the screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan
Director: Thea Sharrock
Set & costume designer: Tim Hatley
Lighting designer: Mark Henderson
Sound designer: Richard Brooker
Video designer: Duncan McLean
Production musical supervisor & vocal arrangements: Mike Dixon
Orchestrations & additional music: Chris Egan
Choreographer: Karen Bruce
Presented by Paper Mill Playhouse in association with Michael Harrison, David Ian, Nederlander Presentations Inc.

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