By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out”)
It would be tantamount to treason to suggest that the amazing Whitney Houston, with her long string of hits from the 1980s and 1990s, was anything less than a pop superstar. Indeed, the musical horizon was shaped by platinum- and gold-certified charted songs such as”Saving All My Love,” “The Greatest Love” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”
Despite her initial success as a singer, the 1992 movie “The Bodyguard,” with Kevin Costner starring along her side, turned out not to be the vehicle that would propel her into the firmament of the cinema. While it did generate respectable business at the box office and received the plaudits of some critics, movie goers and producers saw that she was essentially playing herself. She failed to receive an acting nomination for an Academy Award, but the soundtrack of that film still carries the distinction of being the best selling film soundtrack of all time.
Again, it’s the music that fans love so much about Whitney Houston. If it’s music fans want, then the musical The Bodyguard, playing on its current national tour, will not disappoint. Deborah Cox, who stars as the diva Rachel Marron, has a voice that is worthy of Whitney Houston’s repertoire — powerful and sultry. In fact, Cox collaborated with the ill-fated Houston during her own pop career, while part of the Clive Davis roster of stars at Arista Records. There is probably no one better suited to tackle this demanding role. Cox moves about the stage with absolute authority and is a poised dancer in numerous performance scenes with a coterie of backing dancers and singers. The set design and costumes by Tim Hatley are nothing short of spectacular and are complemented by Mark Henderson’s lighting designs that accentuate the adulation the star’s fans – and those in the audience – have for her.
Playing her older sister Nikki is Jasmin Richardson, who covers Cox’s leading role on Saturday and Sunday evening performances, when her role is played by Dequina Moore. Richardson has several moments when she is paired with Cox on stage both as an actress and a singer that are among the most enjoyable moments of the performance.
Judson Mills stars as the titular character, a man with a tortured past, whose hard exterior and lightning reflexes make him a perfect choice as Rachel’s protector and, eventual, albeith unlikely, love interest. Mills, a veteran of TV and movies, plays his character as a plodding and brawny, yet intuitive, soldier of fortune.
The musical’s book by Alex Dinelaris has little in the way of nuance. Based on the film’s screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, characters sometime arrive to the sound of a musical stinger reminiscent of a soap opera. But again, motivation of characters is not what brings Whitney Houston fans into a crowded theater.
The sets are a wonder to behold and they echo director Thea Sharrock’s intention that more is more. The expensive designs move in and out and up and down with risers for Cox to sing atop when she is not dancing and singing enthusiastically to the crowd.
Karen Bruce’s choreography is at its best during several key performance scenes when Rachel is seen performing with the show’s exuberant dancers. Overall, the best way to describe it would be capable, but predictable. Again, the reason the fans are coming is a way to connect to Whitney Houston through her music, not necessarily through dance moves.
Musical director Matthew Smedal and the production’s musical supervisor, Mike Dixon, have done a creditable job of adapting Houston’s repertoire for the musical, which was birthed on the West End stage in London before the Nederlander organization and producers Micharel Harrison and David Ian contracted with Troika Entertainment and Anna E. Bate to mount the U.S. national tour.
At the end of the night, there is little doubt the orchestra will revert back to two of Houston’s most popular and crowd pleasing numbers aired earlier in the night. The audience cannot help but rise, clap and gyrate to the music and final performance pieces at curtain’s end. This popular trend in similar successful jukebox musicals such as Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys continues with The Bodyguard and there is no reason to suspect the practice will not continue for more shows to come.
It is not rocket science. Fans of Whitney Houston who miss the tragic figure of the fragile pop superstar, will continue to flock to see this show. They are reconnecting to their past and to a time when Houston was living up to her full potential and not overcome by the demons that led to her untimely demise. This means that despite several flaws, fans will forgive if the singing is superb – which it is – and the lead has charisma – which she does.
The Bodyguard: The Musical continues on its national tour through April of 2018.