Theater Review: THE BODYGUARD (U.S. Tour at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre)

by Nathan Hoffman on May 3, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

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REQUIEM FOR WHITNEY

Even if you’ve never seen the 1992 film that gave birth to the musical in 2012 in London’s West End, the story is familiar: A pop superstar falls in love with her bodyguard. He takes a bullet for her. Though they can never be together, their love lingers on in her music. And I will always love you…

Two main takeaways on opening night at the Pantages:

Deborah Cox is an extraordinary singer with a remarkable instrument. She gives us the big Whitney moments we crave, but manages to make each song her own, with almost supernatural vocal control, appearing to effortlessly take lines from pianissimo to grand forte in a single breath.

Secondly, the emotional impact of The Bodyguard rests not in the show, but in memories of Whitney Houston. It’s impossible not to feel a sense of loss when her catalogue of hits rushes over you, including the addition of songs not in the film, “So Emotional,” “One Moment in Time,” “Saving All My Love for You,” “How Will I Know,” “All the Man That I Need,” “All at Once,” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” The reference points are different whatever your age: junior high semi-formal; the senior prom; becoming a parent and giving in to the soppy charms of “Greatest Love of All”; or being a kid embarrassed by your mom (most likely, but possibly your dad) giving in to said soppy charms.

The most successful stretch of the show is an extended karaoke sequence in Act I where superstar Rachel Merron (Cox) and bodyguard Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) fall in love. It starts with the two of them on an under-the-radar date, walking into a bar where three drunk girls are singing a Rachel Merron song. (The girls are wonderfully funny, but the program doesn’t credit them by name.) On a silly bet, Frank ends up performing a mostly talk-sing version of Dolly Parton’s inestimable standard, “I Will Always Love You.” It’s a moment of unexpected bliss, played with winning charm and self-deprecating humor by Mills. Inevitably, Rachel gets up to surprise the small audience in the bar. You want her to. You look forward to knowing what her audience is about to find out. It’s great fun watching them merely surprised at first at how good she is when she sings “I Have Nothing” (Frank introduces her as “Paula”), then ecstatic once they realize it’s really HER. Selfie anyone?

Mills is solid, handsome, good-natured, and able to command attention in his own way. The role has been demoted from center stage in the film to second banana here, but he makes his corny dialogue feel as deeply felt as anyone possibly could. The character’s motivations and ultimately his noble sacrifices (both physical and romantic) are bogus. It’s like the creative team joined together the lamest bits of 42nd Street and The Searchers.

The musical expands the role of Rachel’s sister Nikki (Jasmin Richardson), also a singer, but overshadowed by her sister. Rachel is unaware that Nikki has also fallen for Frank, and there are some nice moments when they sing about him together (but in separate stage realities), most notably in “Run to You,” which is my favorite song from the film (written and composed by Jud Friedman and Allan Rich). Richardson also understudies for Cox, and completely holds her own. She’s especially effective in “Saving All My Love,” bringing down the house. Richardson has real talent, adding sly humor and some moments of real pathos to the thin material of Alexander Dinelaris’ rather demented and confused book.

Dinelaris is the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Birdman, and given how astonishing that script is, I can only assume that whatever his vision of The Bodyguard may have been, he lost the battle to bring it to fruition. Or he just wrote a crappy libretto. But I’d love to know how it all played out during the development process.

Rachel’s young son Fletcher is played alternately at different performances by Douglas Baldeo and Kevelin B. Jones III. Jones played it on opening night, and he is that rare wonder of a child performer: a kid who radiates real innocence and humor, but sings with the vocal mastery and clarity of an adult. He also dances. And steals just about every scene he’s in, seemingly with the happy complicity of the adult performers.

Director Thea Sharrock’s staging is haphazard in this touring production, with cheap sets and costumes by Tim Hatley and media effects that fall flat by Duncan McLean. The video-enhanced moments of violence provoke unintended laughter, and the really big events, like the shooting, are so muddled they barely have any impact. Matthew Smedal’s musical direction and Mike Dixon’s vocal arrangements are terrific; they rise above Chris Egan’s synth-laden orchestrations, which keep the music solidly in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the show cries out for bringing them into the 21st century.

I have no idea what choreographer Karen Bruce was thinking. Some of the numbers are like a Vanilla Ice video with backup dancing by New Kids on the Block. Cox is showcased ineffectively and dancing isn’t her strength, nor was it Whitney’s. The character is an old-school diva, not Madonna. It’s unnecessary and oddly disrespectful to lose her in a crowd of ensemble members executing stale, overexcited, pseudo-sexy steps.

The encore boisterously wipes away the small drama created by the nonsensical parting of Rachel and Frank (why exactly can’t they just get married and dance off into the sunset?) by inviting the audience to sing and bop along to “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” Normally I hate stuff like that, but it was an unexpected joy, and we left the theater singing and remembering Whitney.

photos by Joan Marcus

The Bodyguard
U.S. Tour
at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre until May 21, 2017
for tickets, call 800-982-2787
or visit Hollywood Pantages Theatre
**tour continues until August 20, 2017
for dates and cities, visit The Bodyguard

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Torrie Albert May 11, 2017 at 4:56 pm

It’s a shame we won’t get to see Heather Headley in this. According to all accounts, her performance in London was mesmerizing. While Cox is a strong singer, she doesn’t have the acting chops to really own the stage. Fortunately this is a better fit for her than the ill-conceived bus and truck pre-Broadway tour of the Jekyll & Hyde revival.

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