Suspense-thrillers used to make up a sizable portion of every dinner theater menu, but the days of Death Trap and Agatha Christie yarns have given way to a nearly non-stop diet of musical entertainments. So the first thing that strikes one about the fabulous premiere of The Bodyguard, The Musical at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia is what we’ve been missing. After all, there’s more in life to break into than song.
The next thought to hit audience members at The Bodyguard is more likely to be: Thank God this all fell into the right hands.
Who but co-directors Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick could pull off such a glittery, disco-ball of a romance built around a series of death threats?
Adapted by Alexander Dinelaris from Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay for the 1992 Whitney Houston movie, this song-filled stage version debuted in London’s West End in 2012. With a score made up of songs made famous by the late Whitney Houston, it had its U.S. debut in the fall of 2015 at the Paper Mill Playhouse and has been on at least one national tour since then. This is its first homegrown regional staging.
In some ways, The Bodyguard is a throwback to the sort of good guy/bad guy detective melodrama that doesn’t show up in live theater at all anymore. The solidly masculine Russell Sunday plays a former secret service agent brought aboard (against his better judgment) to protect a rich pop diva and her young son from a menacing stalker.
Suspense plots have to be engineered for speed, power and precision. This particular Super Chief of a passenger train carries us along at a breakneck pace on Toby’s forged-steel rails in the form of two dynamo female vocalists.
All the song hits from the film are here, including Dolly Parton’s tear-jerking confessional, “I Will Always Love You.” Also likely to ignite fond memories are “Greatest Love of All,” “One Moment in Time,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “Saving All My Love,” and some 10 more top playlist tunes—like “So Emotional”—all made famous by Houston. Indeed, the live performances at Toby’s are so compelling that the ineffable sadness of Whitney’s premature loss occasionally overshadows the celebration.
Ashley Johnson-Moore as songstress Rachel Marron is more than convincing as a top concert and recording star with a heart composed of equal parts longing, chutzpah and pure Vegas kilowatt power. She is riveting in numbers like “Queen of the Night” and the searing balladry of “Greatest Love of All.”
As an actress, Johnson-Moore fully inhabits the diva’s protective, motherly side while using her quieter moments to showcase a vulnerable femininity. But she keeps in reserve enough to bring down the house in that climactic, chill-inducing “I Will Always Love You.”
Unbelievably, Samantha McEwan Deininger proves just as sensational a singer and a winning actress in the role of Rachel’s younger sister, Nicki. Deininger more than capitalizes on her big spotlit solo of “Saving All My Love for You” with a heartfelt rendition as sweet as it is power-packed.
Joining forces for the show’s sisterly duets, “Run to You” and “Greatest Love of All,” the pair provide enough audience thrills on their own to justify the cover cost at Toby’s.
The above-mentioned Russell Sunday is as convincing as necessary playing the savvy bodyguard brought in to oversee security. The role does not require any vocal pyrotechnics, though Sunday has proven himself worthy of them in the past in shows like Beauty and the Beast and Jekyll and Hyde.
This time Sunday is mainly about setting off romantic sparks, though he mines plenty of laughs, too, in one awkward karaoke scene that finds him groping gamely through the melodic wilds of an emotional tumbler. He carries that sense of manly confusion over into his unwelcome position as the man who threatens to come between the two Marron sisters.
The existential threat posed by The Stalker is turned into real gooseflesh at times by the spectral appearance of Justin Calhoun. At the other end of the spectrum, the role of Rachel’s 10-year-old son Fletcher is played with charisma to burn by Chase Reaves. (He alternates on other nights with troopers Gavin Lampasone and Kadan Lampasone.)
Rounding out the speaking roles on stage are Toby’s repertory favorites David James and DeCarlo Raspberry as a colleague and manager; and David Bosley-Reynolds and Jeffrey Shankle as associated members of the security team.
Lighting up the dance floor with the flips, struts and air pumps of a post-disco hullabaloo is the expert ensemble assembled by Choreographer Shalyce Hemby. Hemby creates an endless series of kinetic stage pictures without resorting to any of the expected clichés.
Musical highlights here come regularly thanks to the ever-reliable direction of Ross Scott Rawlings and his live pit orchestra. With The Bodyguard, Toby’s is offering one electric glide of a thriller that dazzles the ear even as it leaps the usual boundaries of dinner theater.
Running Time: About two hours and 10 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.