Thursday, February 02, 2017

I Will Not Always Love 'The Bodyguard' Musical, but Good Songs, Performances Make It Likable -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Bodyguard: The Musical
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 12

I do not remember The Bodyguard movie--which I only saw once years ago--well enough to make a definitive critical statement, but I do not recall it being particularly great.

Released in late 1992, the film starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner was a major commercial success and--per a current 4.6/5.0-star composite rating on Amazon--it clearly has its share of hearty admirers.

But I don't think I'm crazy to believe the movie to be overshadowed by its soundtrack, the best-selling of all time. 

Included on it were Houston's monster #1 smash cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You," two other top five hits ("I'm Every Woman" and "Run to You") and a pair of Oscar-nominated songs ("Run to You" and "I Have Nothing," neither of which won).

So although the film's rather thin storyline--if I recall accurately and can believe what I now read--focuses a bit more on Costner's character than Houston's, given all the movies being adapted into stage musicals this one would seem to make sense.

As does, at least commercially, a jukebox musical showcasing songs made famous by the late Houston, a preeminent vocalist who was once one of the biggest pop stars in the world.

Although the title page of the Playbill for The Bodyguard: The Musical concludes with a note that says, "This production has not been authorized by the Estate of Whitney Houston," the show contains not only songs she recorded for the movie, but hits from throughout her career (presumably because she didn't write them).

As is the case with most musicals, The Bodyguard was in development for several years before hitting the stage, but word of its London debut came just weeks after Houston's death on Feb. 11, 2012, and the show opened that December to considerable success and (per Wikipedia) "generally positive reviews."

The musical never ran on Broadway, but under its London director, Thea Sharrock, it is in the midst of its first U.S. national tour.

As part of my Broadway in Chicago subscription series, I saw The Bodyguard Tuesday night at the Oriental Theatre, and while I can't call it a great musical or first-rate theater, I sufficiently enjoyed it as an evening's entertainment.

Deborah Cox, a recording star in her own right though not one I knew, stars in the Whitney Houston role of Rachel Marron, one of the world's biggest pop stars.

When a stalker starts threatening her and her son Fletcher (Douglas Baldeo), her handlers hire a stone-faced, all business--until pleasure--bodyguard named Frank Farmer (Judson Mills in the Costner role).


Initially demonstrating diva-like behavior and incensed by Frank's presence, Rachel eventually--and actually rather suddenly--warms to him after he thwarts an attempt on her life.

The romance is complicated by Frank's need to focus on his job and--presumably more so in the musical than exists in the movie--something of a love, or at least lust, triangle involving Rachel's sister Nicki (Jasmin Richardson).

Nicki factors into the (low-grade) thriller/mystery aspect of the plot in ways I wouldn't explain even if I wasn't confused about it, but mainly seems to be given more stage time to as to have a second terrific singer to handle some of the Whitney Houston songbook.

Mills as Frank doesn't do any singing save for a somewhat comical bit in a karaoke bar, and any chemistry between him and Cox feels lukewarm at best.

Other than Baldeo's nice turn as Fletcher (Kevelin B. Jones III shares the role on a rotating basis), no other characters are particularly major nor distinguished here, though Jorge Paniagua merits mention for ably embodying Rachel's creepy stalker.

Even with Lawrence Kasdan's film script adapted by Alexander Dinelaris--who won an Oscar for co-writing Birdman and penned a strong book for another jukebox musical, Emilio & Gloria Estefan's On Your Feet!--the storytelling lacks clarity, the romance feels forced and the pacing has some weird pauses. 

But when Cox sings "How Will I Know," "Greatest Love of All," "Run to You," "I Have Nothing," "All the Man That I Need," "One Moment in Time" and the closing "I Will Always Love You," and Richardson belts out "Saving All My Love For You," "All At Once" and part of "Run to You," The Bodyguard clearly saves itself from being worthless.

(There's also a "Rachel in concert" medley of "Million Dollar Bill" / "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" / "So Emotional," that really should be devoted entirely to the middle song.)

Cox and Richardson--who also seems she'd be great at Rachel, and is indeed the understudy--may not quite match Whitney Houston's renditions, but disregarding that extremely exalted comparison, both are outstanding vocalists.

Hence, perhaps akin to the movie, the "soundtrack" is really what fuels and saves The Bodyguard musical.

I've long felt that jukebox musicals can be hard to judge as theater, for hearing good versions of numerous songs that one knows and loves, can make for a good time even if in an organically impure way.

And though there's much to be said for originality, nuance, depth and all the things that make for truly wonderful theater--and even remarkable musical theater--it's hard to complain too vociferously about a show that provides robust entertainment.

Despite numerous flaws that deserve to be counted against it, there is--particularly when the two main women are singing--much to applaud in The Bodyguard musical, and at least at face value much to enjoy.

It's not brilliant, it's not essential, it's not Hamilton--though many new Broadway in Chicago subscribers looking to go to that show got this one too--and it's not even Mamma Mia or On Your Feet!

Yet while the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones gave The Bodyguard just 1-1/2 out of 4 stars in a rather negative review, I really didn't think it was that bad.

And speaking as someone who couldn't help but know many of Whitney Houston's ubiquitous hits but never owned an album by her, this imperfect musical at least serves to remind that before and beyond the demons that led to her premature death, she was rather tremendously gifted.

Even if not authorized or endorsed by her estate, The Bodyguard shoehorns in enough of her classics so as to protect and preserve her legacy.  

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