Whitney Houston is a tough act to follow, especially in a version of the vehicle created just for her to showcase her most popular songs. Deborah Cox, as the star singer Rachel Marron, holds her own and more in The Bodyguard: The Musical, now running as part of the Kimmel Center’s Broadway Philadelphia series at the Academy of Music.
The Bodyguard is based on the Warner Bros. film, with a screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan. Alexander Dinelaris’ book closely follows the film in terms of plot, music and dialogue. The story is quite simple: a pop star needs protection because an overzealous fan is stalking her. A bodyguard is hired, and subsequently the singer and the bodyguard become romantically involved.
Director Thea Sharrock accentuates the music by creating a live concert atmosphere. This is something that a film could never deliver. I was able to hear the songs sung live (with no lip-synching) accompanied by live instruments, along with creative lighting (by Mark Henderson) and choreography (by Karen Bruce). I felt like a groupie at a concert each time there was a musical number that was one of Rachel’s gigs. It was Broadway show and pop concert rolled into one.
Tim Hatley’s set design was practical and compelling throughout the play, both in the musical and non-musical scenes. There are multiple set and venue changes in the story, and this is accomplished by sliding walls, scrims, backdrops, video projection (designed by Duncan McLean), lighting, and trollies to move furniture on- and offstage. There were many costume changes too; Hatley also designed the costumes. Rachel Marron wore gorgeous evening gowns and short onstage outfits with sequins, feathers and other bling.
The instrumental ensemble, directed by Matthew Smedal, played behind the stage and not in the pit. It included amplified keyboards, woodwinds, trumpet, guitar, bass and drums. The sound design is by Richard Brooker.
Judson Mills, who played the bodyguard, Frank Farmer, gave a truly impressive performance. He employed a very natural delivery in speaking and was thoroughly convincing. Douglas Baldeo as Fletcher, Rachel Marron’s son, nearly stole the show, while singing and dancing in “How Will I Know.” The scenes with him and Farmer were touching, as Farmer became a stand-in father figure. Jasmin Richardson, as Rachel’s sister Nicki, has a unique timbre to her voice and a distinctive style. I enjoyed her solos, including “Saving All My Love for You,” and a duet of “Run to You” with Cox, which was one of the highlights of the musical. Both Richardson and Cox are talented singers and the duet showcased them well. The leads were supported with solid acting by the ensemble.
The plot of The Bodyguard relies heavily on Rachel’s concert performances of popular songs. However, a karaoke scene created for the musical, stands out as an excellent piece of theatre. Rachel and Farmer go out on a date to a karaoke club, a real dive. The scene is rich in comedy, music and drama, and also advances the plot. Moreover, it gives Farmer and three women from the ensemble the chance to sing — even if they must ham it up and sing badly on purpose! The scene is entertaining, and Matthew Schmidt is memorable as the “know it all” DJ. The flirting between Rachel and Farmer and the enthusiasm of the fans in the club when Cox belts out “I Have Nothing” moved me. The lighting and set design for this scene is highly effective.
The role of Rachel Marron is a challenge, and not just because the singer is in the shadow of the great Whitney Houston. There is a lot of singing, dancing and acting, plus multiple costume changes. It’s a tour de force role, perfect for a “triple threat” performer (one who can dance, act and sing) like Deborah Cox. Her acting was nuanced when she was Rachel “offstage” –a mother, a sister and a lover. When she was Rachel “onstage” performing, she was electric. Her passionate “I Will Always Love You” at the end of the musical brought the house down.
Throughout the evening, the ensemble of singer-dancers brought the various venues and concert scenes to life with strong backup vocals and choreography. They were especially delightful in the reprise of “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” performed after a standing ovation. The male dancers flipped and pirouetted, and everyone (even the supporting characters) had their turn singing and dancing. The audience was encouraged to put their hands in the air and sing along! This was a perfect ending to a night of glamour, romance, music and nostalgia.
The Bodyguard: The Musical is a must-see for those who loved the music and story of the 1992 film.
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.
The Bodyguard: The Musical plays through February 26, 2017, and is presented by The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts at the Academy of Music — 240 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets call the box office at (215) 893-1999, or purchase them online.