The Bodyguard: The Musical review a joyful take on Whitney Houston’s hits

The latest stage production of the 90s romantic thriller offers up skillful interpretations of Whitney Houston songs and a pleasingly playful tone

The audience was still chatting and making their way to their seats when the lights suddenly went dark and gunshots echoed across the Paper Mill Playhouse on Sunday night. It was startling for a second especially in an era where mass shootings are not uncommon but then forgotten as the play began with the aftermath of an averted attack.

The opening scene of The Bodyguard: The Musical, which began its US tour in Millburn, New Jersey, on 25 November, mimicked that of the 1992 film its based upon almost exactly. But from there the stage version veered into its own music-forward, funny, fast-paced operation. Judson Mills (who acted on Walker, Texas Ranger and, more recently, Westworld) plays the title character, Frank Farmer, a seasoned protector who is reluctant to take on the duty of guarding one of the worlds most well-known pop stars.

In the film version, Kevin Costners Frank channels Steve McQueen (whom Lawrence Kasdan allegedly wrote the role for in the 1970s), all quiet, cool confidence and mysterious weariness. Mills Frank Farmer is equally self-secure, but an extrovert who says things like crystal when someone asks if something is clear. Even when hes delivering lines directly copied from the film, his easygoing frankness transforms them, garnering laughter from the audience and lending to the self-awareness of the play.

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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner in a scene from the 1992 film The Bodyguard. Photograph: Reuters

The thing about The Bodyguard is, the film was not great not in critical terms. It was a rain-day romantic thriller fun to watch for sure, but good? No. The soundtrack, however, was indisputably good. It was a No 1 album for five months, it won a Grammy and its still the best-selling soundtrack of all time. The film was essentially a vehicle for the music, but unwilling to admit to it whereas the play owns up to that and then some.

The live show never takes the plot too seriously, unlike the film, opting instead to present a celebration of Whitney Houstons music. With extra Houston songs packed in, nearly every scene is framed around one of her hits: dancers in 90s-style workout gear practice a routine to How Will I Know, three drunk women in a bar do a hilarious karaoke rendition of Where Do Broken Hearts Go (and nail the brief tempo change) and then freak out when Rachel Marron the pop star role with which Houston made her acting debut in the film steps up to sing one of her own songs, I Have Nothing (the play is set in current times which means, naturally, this moment later becomes a viral video).

In the musical Marron is played by Deborah Cox, a Canadian musician whose 1998 song Nobodys Supposed to Be Here held the record for longest running at number one on the R&B charts until Mary J Blige surpassed it in 2006, and has since moved on to Broadway, with roles in Aida and Jekyll & Hyde.

Cox seemed slightly unsure at first, perhaps aware of the enormity of playing a role that Houston came to define, but was stronger in the second act, particularly when she performed One Moment in Time at a pivotal plot moment and closed out the show with The Big Song, a cover of Dolly Partons I Will Always Love You, a song that was unavoidable on pop radio and elsewhere in the US for a large stretch of the 90s. Coxs voice shone simply and beautifully in the songs a capella intro, standing alone on stage with only a spotlight then later, after a quick costume change, in a sequin and feather dress on a rising platform. It was a near-perfect performance, save for a few cringe-making romantic visuals of Cox and Farmer on a large screen to buy time for the aforementioned costume change.

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The cast of The Bodyguard on opening night. Photograph: Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images
The shows other notable stars were Jasmin Richardson, who plays Rachels sister Nicki Marron and sang Saving All My Love with a deep, emotional elegance, and Douglas Baldeo, who plays Rachels son, Fletcher, and has the voice and dance moves of a young Michael Jackson. (Seriously, they should give this kid even more stage time. Maybe performing something off of My Love is Your Love?)

After the final bow, the full cast sang I Wanna Dance With Somebody and the already standing audience began to move and with a disco dance party we were delivered back out into the quiet suburban streets on a wintry night.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/dec/05/bodyguard-the-musical-deborah-cox-whitney-houston-review

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