A seven-time Razzie Award nominee, the movie The Bodyguard was not plucked from the archives of American cinema for its artistic renown. Like the 1992 film vehicle for pop superstar Whitney Houston, the stage adaptation — now making its American premiere at Paper Mill Playhouse under the heavy-handed direction of Thea Sharrock — leans on its soundtrack of hits to prop up a melodramatic story.
Encapsulated in its iconic image of a damsel in distress being cradle-carried to safety by a sturdy gentleman in a power suit, the plot can be summarized as follows: Boy meets girl. Boy saves girl. But girl really saves boy (philosophically speaking). It's no theatrical masterpiece, but The Bodyguard offers an excuse for a Whitney Houston jukebox musical that crowds are already lining up to see when it launches its national tour this January.
Grammy nominee and Broadway veteran Deborah Cox, who stars as Oscar-nominated music sensation Rachel Marron (and will continue with the production for the tour), sings the bejesus out of the taxing song list, filling an incredible amount of space in Whitney Houston's gaping shoes (the role was previously played in London by Heather Headley, Beverley Knight, and Alexandra Burke).
The original film's all-time best-selling soundtrack introduced Houston's renditions of "I'm Every Woman," "I Have Nothing," "Run to You," "Queen of the Night," and her legendary cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You." The stage score brings back all five tunes and adds a few more from Whitney Houston's "best of" collection including "One Moment in Time," "Greatest Love of All," and "Saving All My Love for You." Story, however, takes a back seat to the production numbers, creating something more akin to an overstimulating tribute concert than a stage musical — complete with smoke machines, elaborate light shows (designed by Mark Henderson), and a plethora of glittering costumes (created by Tim Hatley, who also designed the set).
Shoehorned between Marron's awe-inspiring performances (typically accompanied by an ensemble of dancers performing Karen Bruce's energy-boosting choreography), the tale of her love affair with aloof bodyguard Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) remains relatively inscrutable. When Marron becomes the obsession of a violent stalker, Farmer is recruited to be her personal bodyguard.
Farmer is the best in the biz, and he's unimpressed by the glitz and glamor of Hollywood — just the guy to keep the free-spirited Rachel in line as he tries to protect her and her young son, Fletcher (played at my performance by the adorable and vocally gifted Kevelin B. Jones III). Like in any good romance, the pair of strong wills initially butt heads. But after Farmer proves his value (an anticlimactic rescue scene in which they strike the signature Bodyguard pose), Marron warms up to her protector.
Oscar-winning Birdman author Alexander Dinelaris penned the stage adaptation for the musical, but adds little to the film's meagerly developed relationship between Marron and Farmer — a disappointing follow-up to the charming book he lent Broadway's On Your Feet! The one satisfying moment he offers us is the couple's first date — a trip to a karaoke bar where Marron coyly guesses details about her bodyguard's elusive past as part of a bet that sends Farmer to the microphone. Two clumsy verses of "I Will Always Love You" later, and we've reached the end of Frank Farmer's musical contributions.
True, bursting into Whitney Houston ballads is probably not the MO of an introverted ex-Secret Service agent, but in the context of a musical, there are few other ways to get inside the head of a character. Consequently, we never do — no fault of Mills who does the best he can with his skeletal role. The only individual we learn anything about through song is Rachel's sister Nicki — the overshadowed artist of the family, played by the phenomenal Jasmin Richardson, who once again plays second fiddle to Rachel in her love for Farmer (told through the song "Saving All My Love for You").
By the time we get to Cox's final rendition of "I Will Always Love You," you can't help but suspect that a case of Stockholm syndrome has been mistaken for honest affection. But no need for thoughts like that to ruin the encore — a sing-along to "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." It's by far the most gratifying part of the entire experience, proving there is indeed a craving for a Whitney Houston musical. The Bodyguard just may not be it.