Fans of The Bodyguard, The Musical are legion. And boisterous. Also very loyal. Large numbers of them turned out for opening night in Baltimore February 28, when the national tour arrived for a razzle-dazzle run at the Hippodrome Theatre.
Many of the most vocal supporters in the crowd seemed particularly enamored of its two stars. Canadian R&B recording artist Deborah Cox and film and TV hero Judson Mills together go through the same overwrought cement mixer that swallowed Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner in the 1992 cult movie.
In some ways, the plot of The Bodyguard is as retro as the venue. It’s a throwback to the sort of good guy/bad guy melodrama that doesn’t show up in live theater much anymore. Judson Mills plays Frank Farmer, a former secret service agent who signs on (against his better judgment) to protect a high-profile diva and her young son from a menacing stalker.
Adapted by Alexander Dinelaris from the screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, the work debuted in London’s West End in 2012. The show made its U.S. debut in the fall of 2015 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, with the original director and crew as well as its two current tour leads.
With a story so heavy on suspense, it can’t really be described as a jukebox musical. But the score would certainly qualify it as such. All of it comes from different pop composing teams, and is mostly made up of 1990s dance music (post-disco but with strong ties) and straight-up R&B.
The songs everyone remembers from the film are here, including Dolly Parton’s tear-jerking confessional, “I Will Always Love You.” Also likely to bring back memories are “Greatest Love of All,” “One Moment in Time,” “All at Once,” “Saving All My Love,” and some 10 more hits, like “So Emotional,” made famous by the late Whitney Houston.
For me, the drawback of an all-R&B score is that so many of the songs operate on the same emotional pitch and spotlight feelings rather than character. They can’t so much advance the plot as worry it to death. Of course, that does not mean the audience can’t make strong connections with the performers, especially when they’re pouring all they have and more into some soul-wrenching ballad like “I Have Nothing.”
Original West End director Thea Sharrock sets off all the emotional pyrotechnics of the romance and the stalker subplot while orchestrating a dizzying amount of visual effects. Strobe lights, shafts of flame, blasts of smoke, brilliant spotlights and a blinding variety of disco colors keep any holdouts in the audience from nodding off. Kudos to Lighting Designer Mark Henderson.
Set and Costume Designer Tim Hatley honors the movie source in his basically flat orientation of the various settings. That geometric approach allows for an amazing sense of depth at times, especially as different styles of boxes telescope inside one another and contract during scene “wipes.” The divisions have their counterpart in the fortress walls we see the characters build around their own emotionally vulnerability.
Musical highlights here are in very able hands. Grammy-nominated Deborah Cox more than sells the on-stage presentations and the diva’s brassy, protective side while using those quieter moments to showcase her softer, feminine side. Of course, she has what it takes to bring down the house in the anthemic “I Will Always Love You.”
An unexpected highlight occurs when Cox and her on-stage sister, played by another standout vocalist named Jasmine Richardson, join voices on the soaring duet “Run to You.” It’s guaranteed to set off shivers of ecstasy.
Judson Mills as the stoic title character manages to drum up a little sympathy in a role that could use more definition. Going a long way in that regard is his coerced karaoke performance, one of the more delightful moments of comedy in a show that is usually vacillating between dour and exhausting.
Young Douglas Baldeo alternates with Kevelin B. Jones III as the lively 10-year-old Fletcher, and Jorge Paniagua is impressively inexorable as The Stalker. Willie Dee makes a memorable Rory, with Charles Gray as the manager always amusingly at wit’s end. Alex Corrado as Tony and Jonathan Hadley as Sy both contribute vivid supporting performances.
Running Time: About two hours and 10 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Review: ‘The Bodyguard: The Musical‘ at the Academy of Music by Celeste Mann.