The Bodyguard: Stage play highlights famous film, music of Whitney Houston

The Dallas Examiner

– Musical Review –

The musical The Bodyguard could just as easily have been called The Whitney Houston Showcase. The stage presentation – recently part of the Dallas Summer Musicals program and the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth – contains so many of the songstresses’ hits, along with beloved tunes of lesser fame, that the show is more a framework of fan-favorite numbers than a fully developed action-romance drama.

This isn’t a bad thing when it comes to glitzy Broadway musicals. Those familiar with the 1992 Warner Brothers film written by Lawrence Kasdan will notice there are not a lot of surprises in the show, and in fact the intricacy of the script has been scaled back.

The plot has been updated and now focuses more equally on superstar singer Rachel Marron (Deborah Cox) and her personal bodyguard Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) as he tries to protect her from a gifted but lethal stalker (Jorge Paniagua); other plot devices have been dropped entirely.

The end result is that The Bodyguard stage performance is more about the music and less of a thriller. Yet, for those audience members who loved the Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner vehicle as well as those who have never seen it, this production will most likely cause even the most noncommittal audience members to leave the theater with, minimally, a favorite scene, song or character etched into their memories.

Grammy-nominated and platinum selling talent Cox is superbly cast as Rachel with the Broadway show cred of Aida and Jekyll & Hyde bolstering her star power. Even though Houston made the story and soundtrack famous, it is diva Deborah who controls the stage in this production. Musically, the show is all hers.

The overall production is presented very cleverly in a multimedia style through the use of video, computer animation, voiceovers and a few theater tricks to draw in the audience. The lack of a traditional opening – with a lowering of the lights and an orchestra overture – shocks people to attention. As lingering members of the crowd still find their seats the lights go out, there is a gunshot, and a gauzy scene appears onstage; a glimpse into one of Frank’s more perilous former assignments plays out. The timeline then shifts to a VH1-style live pop-rock show with dancers, light and smoke effects, and the queen herself, Rachel.

Throughout the musical, there are moments when the plot essentially ceases and the show simply become a live Whitney Houston revue – and Cox has the talent and ebullience to stop the show every time.

The lead actress is certainly capable of exhibiting both strength and vulnerability, but many of the moments of dramatic tension are shared through the expertise of Mills, Paniagua, Douglas Baldeo as Rachel’s son, Fletcher; Jasmine Richardson as her sister, Nicki (in a much more sympathetic role than depicted in the film); and Alex Corrado as Tony Scibelli, Rachel’s original, and jealous, bodyguard who eventually joins Team Frank.

An especially effective scene that emotionally forces the audience into the plot involves the shadowy stalker as he prepares to crash a major awards show, “rehearsing” for his special night. In his tuxedo and with a backstage pass around his neck, Paniagua pulls out a handgun, its laser sight guided slowly by his hand through the dark theater, section by section, a warning to us that he’s ready to kill, and will stop anyone – even the paying members of the real world – who try to get in his way. This was brilliant in terms of creating mental tautness and pulled the most quiet and subtle reaction from the crowd.

There is very little to criticize about this production. The story is somewhat thin, more of a substantial clothesline upon which to hang some of Houston’s best known work, but what is there is done so well that it is almost a negligible point. The Bodyguard is now simply the closest way any of us will ever be able to see a live performance from Houston, and Cox makes it happen through her own gifted voice.

Still, as meager as the plot is, the script makes it seem a bit too convenient for the stalker to have such easy access to Marron – nightclubs, her own home, a secret cabin, and so on, an aspect that was better advanced in the film.

There is mention during the show that the character was an Army Ranger who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, but witnessing it live it comes off as if the man is a ghost who can appear and disappear anywhere with no effort or trace. It makes for a truly menacing villain, but also sets up the character as being almost invincible. In contrast, it is not unreasonable to imagine that somewhere right now, a real Army Ranger might be locking his keys in his car or forgetting to pick up bread at the grocery store.

At worst, however, this is a minor issue and doesn’t distract from the other feature of the show: the physical and emotional electricity between Rachel and Frank that morphs into love, cutting through the clutter of show business egos and facades.

Mills, who is open and amiable to fans after the show, is the exact opposite onstage. All business and focused on the job, Frank slowly allows his emotional guard to fall while forcing himself to keep his lover safe, making for compelling internal conflict as he deals with external dangers. And his amusing effort at a karaoke version of I Will Always Love You is a crowd-pleaser.

Richardson, as the sister behind the star, has a voice that should not be missed. Lighting designer Mark Henderson complements the visual feast onstage, with every sequin and rhinestone from the costumes of Tim Hatley (who also designed the sets) caught by his illuminations.

The dancers and live musicians were all on point during the production, turning the musical into a genuine rock show at times that would rival anything in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, all under the direction of Thea Sharrock.

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