Not Our Greatest Love of All: 'The Bodyguard' at the Majestic

click to enlarge Not Our Greatest Love of All: 'The Bodyguard' at the Majestic
Photos by Paul Coltas
The Bodyguard starts with a bang. Unfortunately, that’s not a metaphor, with a gunshot so earsplitting that I spilled my drink and pretty much shat myself.

It was also, alas, representative stagecraft for this undistinguished jukebox musical, which shovels a parade of Whitney Houston hits into an awkward version of the film. Like Ghost: The Musical — which it all-too-often resembles — The Bodyguard suffers from an identity crisis: knowing that the audience has generally shown up because of the movie, it tries hard — too hard — to be cinematic, with plenty of short, choppy scenes, weird video sequences, and a striking diffidence in the power of, well, theater. It does have one ace-in-the-hole: Deborah Cox, the Grammy-nominated singer who plays Rachel/Whitney Houston. She’s got an amazing set of pipes, and the show generally works best when it drops all pretense of being a musical, and morphs instead into a Deborah Cox concert. Then it rocks.
Of course, that defeats the whole point of having a plot, and characters, and stuff: in other words, the successful concert elements sink the premise of the enterprise itself. And while the Muses weep, the cast gyrates through many of Houston’s biggest hits, including “Queen of the Night,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” and a Latin-ballroom themed “I’m Every Woman.” The band is fine and the music is choreographed with pep by Karen Bruce. The vocals by Cox and co-star Jasmin Richardson are terrific.

But, oy, that book. Yes, it mostly features the plot of Lawrence Kasdan’s film: a stalker targets a superstar singer, who enlists the help of a bodyguard (Kevin Costner, in the film). Complications — erotic and forensic — soon arise, including a love triangle (well, kinda sorta) with the singer’s sister. But as adapted by Alexander Dinelaris, the book too often relies on cardboard characterizations, especially of strong-yet-silent Frank Farmer (Judson Mills), the show’s putative center. Also problematic is the treatment of the Stalker (Jorge Paniagua), alternately saddled with unnecessary video sequences, stilted dialogue, and distressing staging (does he really need to target the audience with a laser-sighted gun?).
Only one scene — toward the end of the first act — actually works as drama, in which The Bodyguard serenades The Singer in a karaoke bar: it’s an off-key, hideously warbled version of “I Will Always Love You,” and it’s the best thing in the show. (It’s quirky, it’s ironic, it’s prophetic, it’s theater.) It also features a supporting cast that reacts to other characters in the scene instead of disappearing into the wings for another concert number. (Well, that does eventually happen, but for a fleeting moment, there’s a real book scene.) Otherwise, bafflements abound — a projected montage in the second act exists only to cover a costume change — and the whole evening loses clarity towards the end. Like Mamma Mia, it basically concludes as a big dance number.

The Bodyguard, directed by Thea Sharrock and designed by Tim Hatley, was something of a surprise hit in London — Heather Headley originated the role — but the show never made it to Broadway. It is what it is: if you’re a Whitney Houston fan, you’ll probably enjoy it. Otherwise, queue up your Netflix and wait until October for Broadway Across America’s next offering, Bartlett Sher’s much-lauded production of The King and I. (For some theater queens, Rodgers and Hammerstein is still the greatest love of all.)


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