Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
Though the story is modernized a bit with email and cell phones, the plot does not stray far from the original film. We join Frank Farmer (a stoic Judson Mills), a man with few words and a history of protective jobs, as he reluctantly considers becoming the personal bodyguard to the singing and acting superstar Rachel Marron, portrayed by the amazingly talented Deborah Cox. Farmer has plenty of reasons to say no, but when he learns that Marron has a young son (a delightful Douglas Baldeo the night I attended) who might also be in danger, he takes the job.
Marron is being stalked by a raving fan (a devilishly scary Jorge Paniagua), but she doesn't immediately realize the extent to which her life has been infiltrated and scoffs at the idea of having someone by her side at all times. Soon, though, a too close for comfort encounter with the stalker convinces her to accept Farmer's services. Unsurprisingly, their relationship is complicated by romantic feelings, made even more complex by the fact that Rachel's sister, songwriting partner, and business manager Nicki (a wonderfully talented Jasmin Richardson) also has fallen for this new man in the family's life. All the while, the Oscars ceremony looms, and Rachel will have to decide if it is worth the risk to attend and expose herself to potentially fatal harm.
The signature songs from the award-winning soundtrack of the film are present, along with plenty of Whitney Houston's other hits, shifting this show into the category of jukebox musical. Though all the performers are strong, the show truly rests on the shoulders of Deborah Cox, who ably channels the legendary Houston in song after song but also finds moments to make the role her own. As Rachel's son, Douglas Baldeo calls to mind a young Michael Jackson with his dancing and guilelessness, stealing a few musical moments away from Ms. Cox. Jasmin Richardson gives a heartbreaking portrayal of a woman trapped in the shadow of a famous sibling; she shows us what Nicki might have been with her poignant rendition of "Saving All My Love for You." Though the script doesn't offer great character development to anyone, no one gets greater disservice than Judson Mills as Frank Farmer. He does his best with what he has been given, taking advantage of the few moments that afford his character some depth. But a notable flaw from the film continues to be of concern with this production in that the two leads do not have as much chemistry as one might hope.
Director Thea Sharrock, with help from bookwriter Alexander Dinelaris, has done a fine job adapting the material for the stage and a live audience. The musical seems a lot tighter in story than the movie, which seemed to drag at times. While it's clear some thought was put into how to place Houston's hits, they frequently are character moments that do little to advance the plot. A notable exception is "Run to You," sung together by Rachel and Nicki, which is interestingly reminiscent of "I Know Him So Well" (originally from the musical Chess), a lesser known duet Houston sang with her mother Cissy.
Though set design by Tim Hatley is sparse, scenes are skillfully framed with movable screens that provide setting, variety, and at times intimacy. Mark Henderson's lighting design ranges from the intensity of a rock concert to the subtlety of sunlight through windows of Rachel's mansion. His most effective moment is the climax of the musical, when he transforms a sequined Rachel into a stunning human disco ball. The audience at the performance I attended seemed to agree, jumping to their feet as soon as the moment began. The video projections designed by Duncan McLean are interesting to see but don't seem necessary.
Whether you have seen the film or not, its songs and story make for an entertaining show, and it is a pleasure to enjoy Whitney Houston's catalog with an enthusiastic crowd. The curtain call brought a particularly cathartic moment with one of Whitney Houston's best loved singles, "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," and while the previous two hours may not have changed anyone's life, it was impossible to deny the energy in the room as the entire audience accepted the sung invitation.
The Bodyguard is presented by SunTrust Broadway, Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St. Durham, NC 27701 through March 19th, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.DPACnc.com, www.ticketmaster.com, or the Ticket Center at DPAC in person or by phone at 919-680-2787. For more information on the tour, visit www.thebodyguardmusical.com.
Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan