Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
On paper, The Bodyguard is prime real estate for a screen-to-stage transfer. The soapy tale of an inevitable love affair between pop superstar Rachel Marron and Frank Farmer, the eponymous strongman hired to protect her from a deranged fan, was a box office sensation, grossing more than $400 million worldwide. The accompanying album remains the bestselling soundtrack of all time. The property comes with a built-in audience, ready to swoon and cheer on cue. So why does the musical adaptationwhich is currently touring the United States, and has taken up residence at Philadelphia's Academy of Music through February 26feel so laborious?
For starters, The Bodyguard: The Musical suffers in an attempt to give its audience exactly what they want. The production has at its disposal the songbook of the movie's late star, Whitney Houston. This includes some of the most rousing and recognizable music of the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet director Thea Sharrock and librettist Alexander Dinelaris have done almost no work to make these songs fit within the structure of the show. Rather than aid in the telling of Rachel and Frank's story, they seem to exist outside of the narrative, almost entirely lacking context. For example, the only justification one can find for Rachel to perform "The Greatest Love of All"an anthem about empowering childrenis that she hugs her 10-year-old son while singing it. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the songs are listed in alphabetical rather than chronological order in the show's program; it doesn't really matter when a particular number is performed, so long as the audience can identify and applaud it before the musicians in the pit get to the second bar.
Sharrock's vulgar production juxtaposes these concert-like musical numbers (the forgettable choreography is by Karen Bruce) with brief, staccato book scenes that stop the show dead in its tracks. When a musical is working, both songs and scenes propel the narrative forward; here, both seem in service of nothing. Dinelaris' book is slavishly faithful to Lawrence Kasdan's film script; Rachel and Frank's shift from adversaries to lovers is near-immediate and painfully obvious. If Deborah Cox and Judson Millswhose performances one could charitably describe as workmanlikehad even one iota of chemistry, then perhaps the progression of their affair wouldn't feel so artificial. Alas, there's little to suggest they even like each other, much less long to hop in bed together.
Cox is a tall, attractive woman with an alluring voice; when she sings and dances, she is ever-committed. Yet she lacks both the vocal and physical glamour that Houston exuded, and that loss is keenly felt. Without that essential element, it remains unclear why everyoneeven hardened Frankis so drawn to this woman. Cox is also a generally stiff actress, barking her lines with little feeling, much less understanding. The Bodyguard: The Musical isn't Ibsen, of course, but a little subtlety and connection to what text is there could've gone a long way.
Similarly, Mills leaves little impression beyond his well-cut suit, his crew-cut hair, and his ever-present pistol. Frank is presented as a mostly non-singing role, with Mills offering only a playfully bad rendition of "I Will Always Love You" at the karaoke bar where Frank and Rachel have their first date. Although it's easy to understand why the creative team made this decisionFrank is an interloper in Rachel's world of music; his silence reinforces his status as an outsider and a stern protectorthe result is not as compelling as it's meant to be. Suspension of disbelief is a key element of musical theater, and I couldn't help feeling that a singing actor who was allowed to fully inhabit the character through song would have been more effective.
Of the large supporting cast, only Jasmin Richardson, playing Rachel's sister and assistant Nicki, makes much of an impression. Nicki longs to be an artist in her own right, but feels relegated to the sidelines by her sister's juggernaut of a career; Richardson conveys both resignation and roiling anger beneath the surface. She's helped by the fact that she's assigned the show's one well-judged musical number: a low-key rendition of Houston's early hit "Saving All My Love for You," which she performs while moonlighting as a lounge singer at a seedy club. Richardson also serves as Cox's alternate, playing Rachel at two performances every week; wonder if the show might come alive more when she inhabits the leading role. The remainder of the company, to a person, makes little impression.
It's hard to believe that Tony Award-winner Tim Hatleywho so elegantly costumed Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan in Private Lives on Broadwaycould create such ugly ensembles, yet his costumes fail to flatter even a woman as statuesque as Cox. He is further credited with the sets, which are unmemorable. Many of the musical numbers rely on pulsing strobe lights, designed by Mark Henderson, which do little more than produce a quick headache. Duncan McLean's video projections of Rachel's stalker are ludicrous, creating a CGI image of the actor playing the role (Jorge Paniagua) that looks comically fake.
But does it really matter that The Bodyguard: The Musical gets so much wrong? Perhaps not. The first-night audience in Philadelphia cared little for the story being told. They came out for the music, and they weren't disappointed. The production team might do well to just scrap the pretense of presenting a musical altogether and give the audience what it really seems to want: a Whitney Houston tribute concert.
The Bodyguard: The Musical continues its Philadelphia engagement at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad Street, through Sunday, February 26, 2017. For more information on the tour, please visit www.thebodyguardmusical.com. Please note that the role of Rachel Marron will be playing Jasmin Richardson at the following performances: Saturday, February 25, at 2 p.m., and Sunday, February 26, at 6:30 p.m.