Tuesday, December 6, 2016

REVIEW: GLITZY, TUNEFUL, YET STATIC, “BODYGUARD” FAILS TO IGNITE DRAMATICALLY @ THE PAPER MILL PLAYHOUSE

By Ruth Ross

In her short lifetime, Whitney Houston was a musical juggernaut, racking up two Emmy Awards, six Grammy Awards, 30 Billboard Music Awards, 22 American Music Awards, among a total of 415 career awards before her untimely death in 2012. Each album was eagerly awaited, and her concerts drew huge adoring crowds. Her life was filled with drama. So how come The Bodyguard, The Musical, now receiving its North American premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse is so unsatisfying?

True, the production starts off with a (literal) bang and features plenty of glitz and glamour, but the story line is as thin as a dime, lacks a compelling dramatic arc and is ultimately boring. Too, while Houston’s hit songs may be toe-tapping and hip-swinging, stacking them up one after another only magnifies how alike they sound and how vapid the lyrics are.

Based on a 1992 romantic thriller of the same name (conceived as a vehicle for Houston), this version of The Bodyguard hews to the original plot. Superstar Rachel Marron is being stalked by a psychopath who leaves threatening notes in her dressing room and steals one of her costumes. To provide better security for Rachel and her young son Fletcher, her manager hires former Secret Service officer Frank Farmer, with whom she initially clashes over his constant monitoring of her movements and activities. After a night at a karaoke bar, the two antagonists find themselves in bed, and in love, much to the consternation of her younger sister Nicki, who is similarly enamored. Despite his best efforts, the stalker gains entry to Rachel’s blockbuster show. Will Frank thwart the stalker’s nefarious plot? Will Rachel and Frank find true love? Stay tuned.

Director Thea Sharrock, choreographer Karen Bruce and set and costume designer Tim Hatley put on a visually exciting show, one that barrels along from one musical number to another. Lighting designer Mark Henderson really outdoes anything I’ve ever seen, transforming plain sliding panels into various locations (right).

The actors, especially Deborah Cox (above, right) as Rachel and Jasmin Richardson as Nicki, work hard to offer nuanced performances in a script that depicts the characters as two-dimensional. Both have great vocal pipes and really know how to put a song across (although Nicki gets to sing only two); Cox is every inch and note the R & B superstar in her interpretations of Houston’s hit songs. As Frank Farmer, Judson Mills (above, left) appears to be channeling Kevin Costner’s stoic taciturnity. Although he “sings” but one song, he’s especially charming in his interaction with Fletcher, played by an adorable Douglas Baldeo (on opening night; Kevelin B. Jones III shares the role throughout the week). Jorge Paniagua as the Stalker is both easy on the eyes (what a set of abs!) and terrifying. Other supporting roles are mostly forgettable.

Kudos to the very hardworking dance ensemble. They are a mass of constant movement, whether rehearsing or performing in a “concert.” And the special video effects (designed by Duncan McLean) and sound (designed by Richard Brooker) add suspense to the otherwise predictable plot.

Conceived and first performed in London, The Bodyguard is more juke-box musical than true musical theater. Part of this stems from the fact that, instead of growing organically from the plot, the songs feel shoe-horned in, often out of nowhere. The entire production feels more like a tribute show to Whitney Houston than a drama with music. Unfortunately, book writer Alexander Dinelaris merely adapted Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay for the stage instead of improving on the dramatic tension, thus giving the character development and drama short shrift.

If you were/are a fan of Whitney Houston’s music, you’ll love The Bodyguard. If you love theater, you may be dissatisfied. Nevertheless, the production at the Paper Mill Playhouse is polished, professional and entertaining. I give the music a grade of A, the script a C, and the entire production a B. In the realm of the modern juke-box musical (Beautiful, Jersey Boys, Movin’ Out), it’s pretty representative. If that’s your cup of tea, you might not want to miss it.

By the way, don’t scoot out after the curtain calls or you’ll miss a musical treat.

The Bodyguard, the Musical will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through January 1, 2017. For information and tickets, call the box office at 97.376.4343 or visit www.PaperMill.org online.