Not many musicals literally start with a bang. In the case of The Bodyguard: the Musical, now playing at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, an opening gunshot was both very startling and pretty effective at getting the stragglers to settle into their seats. Featuring music by Whitney Houston (as well as songs written by others and famously recorded by her), this jukebox musical is primarily generic, cheesy, tourist bait that is elevated into something pretty enjoyable by the strength of star Deborah Cox’s fabulous performance.
The show, which debuted on the West End in 2012 and is now in the midst of a US national tour, is of course based on the 1992 film of the same name, which starred Kevin Costner as Frank Farmer, a bodyguard assigned to protect music superstar Rachel Marron, played by Whitney Houston, in light of mysterious threats from a stalker. The movie and its soundtrack were huge financial successes, and Houston’s performance of “I Will Always Love You” became an iconic moment. The musical, with a book by Alexander Dinelaris (an Oscar winner for the screenplay of Birdman), simplifies some aspects of the plot—in the movie, Rachel’s stalker and the hit-man responsible for the attempt on her life are revealed to be two different people, while in the musical they are consolidated into one person, and the role of Rachel’s jealous sister, Nikki, is also handled a bit differently.
This show is primarily a star vehicle for the actress playing Rachel, in this case Deborah Cox, who is just sensational. Living up to Ms. Houston vocally is no easy task, but she was in spectacular voice and carried herself with the confidence of a superstar. The musical does not ask much of Judson Mills as Frank—he sings only once, intentionally poorly, and glides through the show on his Clooney-esque suave charm. Jasmin Richardson is a standout as Nikki, and it is a shame she only has a generally anemic storyline and a weird, half-baked love triangle with the two leads to play with because she absolutely holds her own with Cox vocally. Also worth mentioning is Kevelin B. Jones III as Rachel’s young son Fletcher, who gets a few opportunities to show off his impressive pipes.
Nikki’s storyline is not the only aspect of the plot that is lacking in a show that is pretty thinly written around flashy performances of iconic songs such as “Greatest Love of All,” “How Will I Know,” “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” and, of course, “I Will Always Love You.” Frank and Rachel falling for each other is completely glossed over—one minute she’s being mean to him, then he saves her life and suddenly she is confused as to why he hasn’t taken her on a date yet. Other sequences are also barely thought out, such as a threat to Fletcher that is so rapidly resolved I couldn’t tell you what actually happened, or an offstage chase sequence in which shots are randomly fired but never explained. And, as is to be expected considering the source material, some moments are downright groan-worthy in their cheesiness, most notably everything involving the stalker (Jorge Paniagua), who often stands on stage or appears in pre-recorded video projections doing vaguely menacing things in slow motion. There is also a truly unnecessary video montage towards the end where Rachel briefly sings to a giant projection of Frank’s image, although once it was revealed to be a distraction for her to change into a fantastically sparkly dress, I almost forgave it. There is not much creativity to be found in director Thea Sharrock’s staging, much of which consists of Cox singing into a microphone to the audience while the spirited ensemble dances around her.
If you’re looking for recognizable music and a spectacle, you will probably love this show, which has everything from glitter cannons to a post-curtain call dance party set, naturally, to “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” While The Bodyguard may not have much substance, it sure has style, and Cox’s performance is an impressive one worthy of the critical accolades it will surely receive. Plus, there’s something kind of undeniably infectious about hearing these songs, especially performed so well, and I’ll admit it had me smiling and even dancing a little by the end.
The Bodyguard runs at the Pantages through May 21st. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased at www.HollywoodPantages.com. Please note that Deborah Cox is not scheduled to perform at matinees. The running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes including one intermission. For information about upcoming tour stops including San Diego, Dallas, Houston, Portland and Seattle, click here.