We gave it a C-
There are worse ways to experience a dozen Whitney Houston songs — not many, but certainly worse — than The Bodyguard – The Musical, a touring stage adaptation of the 1992 blockbuster that made a mega-star out of Houston and sent half her symphonic suite (it’s the best-selling film soundtrack of all time) into the stratosphere. Way, way up in the cosmos sits her music now; in a tight orbit nearby floats Deborah Cox, whose pitch-perfect voice in Houston’s leading role of vulnerable pop star Rachel Marron channels the real late singer with stunning, never imitative precision. Cox’s take on tunes like “How Will I Know,” “Run to You,” and “I Will Always Love You” is celestial. Lightyears away, thousands of miles down below on Earth, plus an additional six feet under, lies everything else in The Bodyguard (which opened its Los Angeles leg at the Pantages Theatre on May 2).
From the show’s charming opening gunshots while the house lights are still up to the wild disco party curtain call where Rachel and her dead stalker duet on “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” The Bodyguard has no respect for the rules of theater — a tremendous miscalculation that haunts every scene of the production, especially since the set list and basic story are strong enough ingredients to have been transformed into something fabulous onstage. Thea Sharrock’s ham-fisted direction, as subtle as an AK-47, offers drama of the lowest common denominator with clipped scene work, fundamentally unnecessary projections, melodramatic set changes, and one choice indicative of it all: Rachel’s stalker (Jorge Paniagua) never appears onstage without a dramatic light cue and an accompanying chord of horror movie music. It happens almost a dozen times during the two-hour-and-change show, and it’s up to you to decide whether the comically large plastic knife he strokes is more threatening than the revolver (with laser sight!) that he aims around the theater before firing on and shattering a projection of Rachel’s headshot. If you didn’t know, this guy is bad news!
It doesn’t help that the show’s book (by Alexander Dinelaris, who co-wrote the exquisite Oscar-winning Birdman) is as burdensome an obstacle to its actors. The stakes of Rachel’s increasingly violent threats from a deranged fan are painted as more Scooby-Doo than CSI; there’s a team of bumbling personnel, a precocious and overly gullible son who speaks in ‘80s sitcom phrases, and a forgotten third-wheel sister (played by the fine-voiced Jasmin Richardson, who miraculously gives the sole saving-grace acting performance of the show). As the Bodyguard himself, an apparent wunderkind in the fairly low-innovation realm of personal security, Judson Mills is very convincing; his stoic take on Kevin Costner’s character does not sing, even remotely, despite being the co-lead of a romantic musical, and similarly, Mills is very good at picking up Cox into his arms and not dropping her.
Despite it all, the songs are the stars here, and oh, how they shine with Cox’s voice igniting each one and making it worth each problematic non-musical wait. You have to applaud the creativity in the lack of creativity that went into the presentation of each showstopper — Rachel sings in exotic locations such as a rehearsal studio, a recording studio, a karaoke bar, a club, and another club. Ferociously toned dancers certainly add to the guilty pop of it all, and Cox is a trooper for how she effortlessly handles the frequent costume changes and instant mood shifts demanded of her by Sharrock and Dinelaris’s scene structure.
On the spectrum of “so bad, it’s good!”, The Bodyguard is not at the negative extreme. But don’t mince my words: It’s actively bad. It doesn’t just skate by with a few flaws, but rather it lobs whole grenades at you, begging to see how much mishandled drama you can tolerate between Cox’s Evian breaks. It’s a hollow shell of a show, covered in rhinestones that are impossible not to admire. As I said, there are worse ways to listen to 16 superbly performed Whitney Houston songs. Most of them involve some sort of desert island or hostage situation, but still. C-