Word of warning. If you arrive at the last minute to find your seat in the vast ASU Gammage auditorium for The Bodyguard The Musical, prepare to be startled. Without warning or even a voice-over introductory announcement, the show suddenly begins, and it begins with an unexpected boom, a gun shot, so shocking, you may need to steady yourself. And once you take your hand off your heart and shakily re-adjust yourself as you finally sit, there follows a couple more gun shots.
The Bodyguard, now performing at Gammage in Tempe until Sunday, December 3, is a stage musical version of the popular 1992 Kevin Costner, Whitney Houston film of the same name, though ‘popular’ should be qualified. The soundtrack went into the stratosphere, but the film itself earned considerably less plaudits than you might recall. Reviews were mixed to negative, and though 2 of the songs from the score were nominated for an Oscar, the awards leaned more heavily towards the Golden Raspberries, including a nomination for Worst Picture. But despite its listing as one of The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made, audiences flocked, as regional audiences are doing to the stage version, and probably for the same reason: to hear those songs.
Though it never opened on Broadway, after a longer than expected run in London where it was developed, The Bodyguard The Musical has toured the U.S. since last year. That heart-stopping opening boom heralded its Tempe opening, and what has surprisingly thrilled packed houses across the country will presumably do the same for valley audiences each night this week until its close on Sunday.
Following the same path as the movie, pop diva Rachel Marron (Deborah Cox) is being stalked. “Prepare, my queen, I’m coming,” concludes a threatening letter from a crazed fan. Rachel’s team hires former Secret Service Agent, Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) to be her bodyguard, but Rachel is less then happy with Frank’s restrictive demands. “I can eat where the hell I want, whenever the hell I want!” she exclaims. It’s not until he rescues her from a literal stage attack and carries her off in his arms that the relationship becomes complicated and a love affair begins.
Technically first-class and slick with continually moving frames on an elaborate set that slide on and off and up and down, the show, while loud, boisterous, and dazzling in its showbiz glitz, can’t overcome the issue that plagued the film. The wafer-thin plot doesn’t really work. Rachel, the world famous superstar, and Frank, a cautious and considerably restrained ordinary-guy bodyguard, never really seem as though they would ever be together.
The book, adapted from the screenplay, bolsters the role of Rachel’s sister Nikki (Jasmin Richardson). It creates an added layer of conflict by having the sibling fall romantically for Frank at the same time as her more famous sister, but it feels like nothing more than a story-telling device developed to fill a void, something to give the simplicity of the overall plot a little more weight. But why Nikki would fall for such a guarded plank of wood and what he does to deserve Nikki’s attention is never evident.
As with the film, there’s nothing particularly intriguing about Frank, and there’s certainly nothing to convince that a Beyoncé-like superstar, or a Whitney Houston for that matter, would fall for whatever charms she evidently sees in him. The only reason movie audiences went along with it was because Frank was played by Kevin Costner at the height of his career. The character may only be an every-day, low-key protector, but it was portrayed by an actor carrying the weight of a star. Audiences didn’t see a singer and a bodyguard together, they looked beyond the characters and saw two big screen superstars holding each other, and that made a cinematic romance easier to accept. The stage is a different forum.
Deborah Cox is quite superb as Rachel – as a singer/performer she knocks every song right out of the house – and Judson Mills does exactly what the part of Frank requires – he’s solid, no nonsense, and an authoritative presence – but he’s not a superstar. By playing Frank exactly as the character demands, the flimsiness of the piece only underlines the story’s limitation. Other than Frank doing his job, there’s simply nothing here that indicates the groundwork that would lead to an attraction or the making of a real love affair. Holding a vulnerable woman in the arms of a bodyguard might be a great image for a poster or a moment in a music video, but to suggest that love has suddenly blossomed, particularly after knowing how much Rachel resented everything about Frank’s presence, is pushing it.
But while the dramatic events never feel fully realized, or even interesting, the songs and how they’re performed are what makes The Bodyguard tick. Of course, even here, your appreciation is restricted to how much of a fan you are of the sizable Whitney Houston catalog of songs, but there’s no denying the power of their punch, particularly when they’re sung so well by both Cox and Richardson. None really lend themselves to good theatre, and when Richardson as sister Nikki reprises Saving All My Love For You suggesting she’s just fallen for Frank, the moment comes across as story-telling clumsiness. But when performed as set pieces for a show within a show, as with Queen of the Night complete with backing dancers, neon lights, and Las Vegas style theatrical fire-bombs with smoke cannons and glitter, audiences should be thrilled, or, at least, satisfied.
And it’s the music with which they leave the theatre. Old vaudevillian comedians used a trick when they knew their act was going south; they’d end with a song. No matter how bad the skit, audiences would always applaud and were left with the feeling of having been entertained. The Bodyguard does something similar with its Mamma Mia moment after the final bows. Once all is done, the cast return for an exuberant performance of Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody. It’s a crowd-pleaser, designed to have you on your feet, singing, dancing, and clapping. Even if you found the show itself lacking, you leave with the sound of the song still bouncing in your head, and, like that audience applauding the old-time comedian, a sense of satisfaction. After all, in the end, isn’t that what you came for? Though intrestingly, you can’t help wonder how different the show’s score might have been had the film’s original diva starred on the screen. When Lawrence Kasdan first wrote the script, the part of Rachel was meant for Diana Ross.
Pictures Courtesy of Joan Marcus
The Bodyguard performs at ASU Gammage in Tempe until Sunday, December 3