That’s what I wrote in my notebook to remind myself that The Bodyguard the musical starts with a jump scare. I could have written it again when the show re-used the dramatic gimmick at the top of Act Two, but once seemed like enough.
I still can’t decide if I think The Bodyguard, a nationally touring show now running at the Paramount, is good bad or bad bad, but either way I’m so glad I saw it, as it was undoubtedly one of the weirdest theatrical experiences of my life. As the second act came crashing to a close, I realized that my jaw was very literally hanging open; my brain was too busy processing the bizarreness on stage. I have so many questions.
But first, some answers. Yes, this is a musical based on the 1992 Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner film of the same name. The basic plot is the same: superstar singer Rachel Marron starts getting threatening letters from an obsessed fan and hires top-notch but reticent (that’s how you know he’s serious about his job) bodyguard Frank Farmer to protect her. That’s really the gist of it—Rachel has a son, a secretly jealous sister, a sleazy manager, etc. Frank has a past he won’t discuss much. Things get dangerous, there’s a big rescue, they fall in love. Fin.
In this stage adaptation, R&B star Deborah Cox stars as Rachel and she sounds fantastic—hearing her sing some of these Houston classics is worth the ticket price, and she sounds as good on closer “I Will Always Love You” as she does on opener “Queen of the Night.” Jasmin Richardson, who plays Rachel’s sister Nicki, sings just as well—her voice is rich and sure, and duets between the Marron sisters were a musical highlight of the show. Even if they didn’t always make sense.
Which brings me to my first question: What is the role of the music here? The Bodyguard the movie has one of the greatest soundtracks ever—“I Have Nothing,” “Run to You,” and Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” were its first three singles—but it isn’t a musical, because the music exists within the story.
This Bodyguard hasn’t really picked a side. It isn’t a jukebox musical, which uses existing songs to tell the story of the show. Most often the songs are used as Rachel’s songs, and she performs them in that context—in rehearsal, writing at a piano, on a stage for a cheering audience. Sometimes though, Rachel will wander downstage and earnestly deliver a song to the audience, as though it’s now telling us something about the plot or emotional temperature of the show, which it usually isn’t, often because the lyrics don’t quite line up with the story.
In one case, Rachel and Nicki stood on opposite sides of the stage singing “I Wanna Run to You,” with arm-hair-raising beauty out toward the audience. For the first half of the song I thought, why are they singing this song at us? Then, as it ended I thought, woah wait, are they both supposed to be in love with Frank?—a reality that I would never have guessed, were it not for the song. Frank came to one of neglected Nicki’s small-time concerts and he got in good with Rachel’s son Fletcher (Kevelin B. Jones III, a truly marvelous young singer) and now they’re both smitten?
Alex Dinelaris, who won an Oscar for writing Birdman, is responsible for the book of The Bodyguard, which projects (sometimes literally) moments of threat or love or jealousy without actually writing those moments.
Judson Mills, a star of soap operas and Chuck Norris vehicles (and, fun fact, imdb tells me he is Dinelaris’ college roommate), plays Frank Farmer, and compounds the confusion. Why does Rachel fall in love with this guy? Rachel is, as we’re reminded early on, one of the biggest stars on the planet—Frank is a stiff, uncharismatic professional, and giving him one moment of levity at a karaoke bar doesn’t counteract the dearth of chemistry between all these people. Also, Frank doesn’t sing, which again confuses the rules of if this is a musical or a show about a couple of great singers.
Award-winning British director Thea Sharrock directs, and much like the American Idol judge complaints of old: It’s too Broadway. Rachel Marron is supposed to be Beyoncé-level famous, and her big splashy concert numbers feel like chipper Broadway numbers, rather than songs to make you scream at an arena concert. The tinkly Broadway-style underscoring, the peppy smiles and odd faux-ballroom lifts of Karen Bruce’s bizarre, distracting choreography. In short, why couldn’t this just be an R&B musical? This music is great, it’s catchy and beloved—but it seems the creators didn’t trust it to work as a musical, so they squished it through a generic Broadway garlic press.
From where I was sitting, much of the laughter was tepid and the audience response half-hearted, not because people weren’t having a good time, but because they seemed genuinely confused about how to interact with this show: Is it a concert or is it a musical? When Rachel is asking us to clap or sing along, is she really asking this audience, or is she asking her imagined audience? WHERE IS THE FOURTH WALL? This isn’t creative, it’s confusing. A big final number that finally gets the audience standing and clapping feels fun but so wasted—why didn’t you want us this invested all along?
The Bodyguard runs through Nov. 19 at the Paramount Theatre.