Michael L. Quintos
- OnStage Associate Los Angeles Theatre Critic
I must admit, this was a hard review to write—particularly because I absolutely love (and am a fan of) someone that does such a great job in such a not-so-great show.
First, let's get this out of the way: while sitting through the national tour production of "THE BODYGUARD"—the stage adaptation of the late Whitney Houston's 1992 film that boasts the best-selling soundtrack of all time—one thing is absolutely for certain: chart-topping recording artist Deborah Cox (she of the number 1 hit "Nobody's Supposed To Be Here") is unquestionably a spectacular singer, blessed with the kind of jaw-dropping, enviable pipes most R&B/Pop divas could only dream of having.
That soaring divalicious voice many have come to know over her long, hits-filled career is present and accounted for here, where she is tasked to play fictional mega-pop star Rachel Marron, the same role Houston made her film debut in opposite Kevin Costner. Thankfully, Cox does not provide a mere impersonation of Houston's performances, but rather a genuinely admirable, more subtle take that has her putting her own stamp on the song stylings many of us have grown to love over decades.
It's only fair that Houston's songs get the benefit of an accomplished singer to revive them, and Cox definitely fits that requirement. Cox caresses and slays every single song she covers with verve and confidence, boldly making many of her own, lovely affectations that deviate from Houston's own signature vocalizations. Her effortless riffs and vocal gymnastics are just the kind of techniques most singing show contestants love to mimic these days.
I truly believe that even Ms. Houston herself would have been one of the first to give Cox a well-earned ovation were she alive today to witness her one-time duet partner ("Same Script, Different Cast") and former label mate's singing prowess, which in essence is a beautifully rendered homage to an unparalleled talent gone too soon. Many times, Cox's voice literally soars (particularly when raised up by dancers or platforms), a feat worth lauding considering she's doing this many times a week in full, glorious voice.
But sadly, it pains me to say, that Cox's musical contributions—and Houston's musical gems themselves—are pretty much where "THE BODYGUARD" itself excels. When Cox and company aren't singing or dancing up a storm, the audience is left with mostly cheesy, overly-exaggerated melodrama, flat, one-dimensional characters, and even, at times, over-done "thrills" that make you laugh instead of feel any suspense.
"THE BODYGUARD"—which continues performances at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa through June 11, 2017—is, at its core, a glossy, Hollywood-glazed Jukebox musical that's not quite musical theater in its traditional sense, but, rather, a really eye-popping all-Houston covers concert featuring many of Houston's unforgettable hits from the film as well as her hits-crammed pop catalogue. The songs, besides Cox, are definitely the main if not the only true reasons to see the show.
The stage iteration's many featured songs, as presented under the baton of musical director Matthew Smedal, are mostly vivid, high-octane concert performances with cool, well-lit sets and costumes (by Tim Hatley), lots of slick, Vegas-like choreography (by Karen Bruce), and in many occasions, an army of eye-candy back-up dancers and singers. Thus Cox and company's versions of "How Will I Know," "I'm Every Woman," "Queen of the Night," and "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" feel like buoyant nostalgic trips fashioned into fun little concert numbers that had the audience bopping their heads and lip-syncing along. Like "MAMMA MIA," the musical even ends with an audience-sing-along just to punctuate it even more.
Other songs—mostly well-sung ballads—are meant to bridge or expand "feelings" expressed in the book scenes, written by Alexander Dinelaris and adapted from Lawrence Kasdan's film script. But fairly quickly, the songs prove to be welcome breaks from the weak dialogue and uninspired plot progression. It's really just a shame that the production's lazy narrative isn't as strong as the top-notch singing performances sandwiched between them.
Many of those great singing performances I especially loved were the handful of duets between Cox's Rachel with Rachel's sister Nicki, played with incredible scene-stealing vocals by Jasmin Richardson. Nicki, in the stage version, has an even more expanded (if improperly utilized) role than in the film version. So much more substance could have come out of the auxiliary story of a jealous sister overshadowed by her star sister's limelight. At least, thankfully, we got to hear Richardson's incredible voice here and there, which had me enthusiastically yelping "yasss" so many times in my seat, I felt like I was in church (those who want to hear more of Richardson should check out "THE BODYGUARD" on certain weekend performances in which she is pre-scheduled to play the main role of Rachel, too.)
So it bears repeating that the songs are, in essence, meant to be the distracting main courses in this buffet filled with lots of filler.
The plot—with essential parts cribbed directly from the popular movie—finds international superstar and current Oscar-contender Rachel (Cox) the target of an obsessive, abdominally-blessed stalker (Jorge Paniagua), hell-bent on causing her harm. Fearful for her safety, her manager Bill Devaney (Charles Gray) feels it is time to upgrade her security.
In comes former Secret Service agent-turned-private bodyguard Frank Farmer (square-jawed Judson Mills) to the rescue, whose new assignment is to overhaul Rachel's apparently shoddy security standards and, well, be the star's personal constant bodyguard. Rachel's sister Nicki (Richardson) is glad for the change, especially since she's crushing on the hunky new guy. Rachel's perpetually joyful, super-friendly, pre-pubescent son Fletcher (Douglas Baldeo) is also happy with the newest member of mom's entourage, especially since Frank is not only the father-figure he never knew he needed, but also, well, gifts him a fun new toy.
At first, of course, Rachel is annoyed by the gruff, mostly hard-edged Frank. But eventually, as cliché dictates, Frank wins Rachel over, progressing their relationship from a professional one to a personal one. In the midst of all of this, Rachel becomes quite in-demand leading up to the Academy Awards, juggling press junkets, her own concert tour, and gala fundraisers, which, naturally, opens up the apparently easy-to-penetrate defenses in her accessibility.
Ohmigosh, you guys, look! It's the stalker again! (Cue musical synth shriek)
That is pretty much THE BODYGUARD's razor-thin narrative in a nutshell: a conveyer belt of repetitive, soapy, B-movie tropes and clichés that fill the gaps between the raison d'être of our attendance: to hear Houston's beloved songs sung by a really talented singer.
Oh boy. I have to say that Cox and company are such troopers and good sports for having to sing their best in between some of the most wonkily assembled dialogue and staging I've experienced since the stage adaptations of FLASHDANCE and DIRTY DANCING. There are moments that had me unintentionally laughing at what is supposed to be a very serious or scary moment, while there are plenty more moments that had me seething and rolling my eyes at some of its poor, lame attempts at comedy (at one point, rather randomly, a stage manager or something at the musical's Oscars scene suddenly finds it necessary to flirt with one of Rachel's bodyguards... you know, for plot progression purposes).
As if assuming the audience is made up of complete nimrods, "THE BODYGUARD" utilizes jarringly suspenseful musical themes and lighting and oh-so-cheesy projected Film Noir Cinema scenes to let us know that this one stalker character is definitely the bad hombre in this here tale (actually, the projected clips instead feel like scenes ripped from a laughable parody of a thriller). And more than once, the musical employs a cheap horror movie sound trigger meant to startle jumpy audience members whenever he shows up, much like a sudden musical chord shriek in a horror film whenever Freddy Krueger suddenly bursts into frame. By the time it happens again in the second act, I couldn't help but chuckle at its repetitive audacity.
To jump-startle the audience during several key points seems to be this musical's go-to trick. Even right at the start of the musical, as some patrons are still making their way to their seats, (Spoiler Alert) a series of loud gunshots bang loudly inside the suddenly pitch-black theater where shafts of lights on stage are the only source of illumination. Haha, they startled you silly, you unsuspecting audience members! (Never mind that in the real world lately, real gunshots in theaters are something to seriously worry about).
I've seen many musicals resort to video projections a lot lately, mostly as a more electronic but economy-friendly way to show backdrops or scenery. Here, its usage feels instead like a shiny, high-tech distraction so audiences don't notice the musical's rickety, almost half-hearted ties to traditional musical theater. Sure, the property, after all, is based on a very famous movie, so I guess it wouldn't be too far-fetched to include some cinematic moments here. But is it merely incorporated out of sheer laziness?
Here's the bottom line: this over-melodramatic, at times cringe-worthy cheese-fest is barely salvageable in its current state, even with Cox's and Richardson's undeniable star power and vocal prowess. I'd sooner come just to hear Cox (and Richardson) slaaaay the songbook, which, again, is basically the show's only reason to even bother checking it out. While on paper this should have been a perfect excuse to hear the Whitney songbook fashioned around a popular pre-existing property that could have been expanded into a more clever, story-rich, theatrical way, the end resulting musical adaptation is, at best, a really good concert interrupted intermittently by some shoddy bits of talking, both over-caffeinated and under-caffeinated, and all with very little character development.
Not to say the show didn't have its share of tolerable scenes. Aside from, of course, most of the entertaining musical numbers, the almost improv-like comic moments in the scene set in a karaoke bar midway through the first act is by far the show's most enjoyable "book" moment, aided by funny, surprising performances by members of the ensemble, and culminating in a genuinely playful, flirty moment between Cox and non-singing co-star Mills. Again, Richardson's second-fiddle sister Nicki (who is given more of a backstory, it seems, than either of the two lead characters) is a presence that I wish the show's creators explored even further. But I get it... it's really all about the music.
To put it bluntly, Houston and Cox both deserve much much better than this. I actually think it would have been better to see a one-woman tribute concert where Cox herself offers up Houston's musical goodies backed by a full orchestra and, perhaps, sure, the same eye-candy dance troupe. In between songs, she would divulge factoids or personal anecdotes about Houston and herself, which I think would be far more fascinating and satisfying than this stage musical adaptation's inexcusable shortcomings. I feel like that would better serve Houston's legacy while showcasing Cox's talents in a more streamlined setting.
Still planning to see "THE BODYGUARD?" Sure, come for Cox's terrific musical showstoppers. Just be okay with all the so-called "story" in between the music.
** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ **
Photos from the National Tour of THE BODYGUARD - THE MUSICAL by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Performances of the National Tour of "THE BODYGUARD - THE MUSICAL" at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, June 11, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.