There are two primary reasons to see The Bodyguard The Musical (playing at Papermill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ: Deborah Cox and Jasmine Richardson. If Cox weren’t already a star, she would be after this performance. She is a vocal dynamo recreating the Whitney Houston catalogue and putting her own styling, shadings, and vocal theatrics to hits like “I Will Always Love You”, “I’m Every Woman”, “How Will I Know” and “One Moment In Time.”
Richardson matches Cox note for note and brings a nuanced beautiful tone to every song. They duet many times to great effectiveness and shake the rafters of the Papermill mightily.
The production clocks in at an efficient two hours. Thea Shadrock directs a book by Academy Award winner Alexander Dinelaris (Birdman) based on Lawrence Kasdan’s original screenplay. Dinelaris dispenses with much exposition and at times logic and gets to the songs as quickly as possible. This is a mixed blessing. Great for listening to wonderful singing, less so for those trying to follow along.
The broad brushstrokes are as follows: Cox is Rachel Maron an Academy Award nominated singer songwriter. She’s been getting menacing letters from a fan. A dress is stolen. Her team hires former Secret Service Agent Frank (Judson Mills) to be her bodyguard. Richardson plays Rachel’s sister, Nicki – co-writer and a stellar but unappreciated singer of her own. Nicki also has a thing for Frank but after a night of karaoke confessions Frank and Rachel get romantic. The menacing letters continue and with Rachel and Frank at an evening performance Rachel’s son’s life in threatened. Worse, the menace (Jorge Paniagua) attacks on Frank’s home. A determined Rachel chooses to honor Nicki by performing at the Academy Awards. Will Frank and Rachel find true love together? Will Rachel score that Oscar? Will she find a follow up project worthy of her talents?
Stellar acting and singing performances back Shadrock’s production. The ensemble singer and dancers bring joy to every number. Karen Bruce’s choreography strongly matches each song, veering from music video slick, to Broadway, Salsa, and aerobic acrobatics. Tim Hatley’s costumes are bright, and realistic for large production numbers in clubs or arenas. They are knowing enough of the core audience - women - to feature enough male torsos and arms. You know Frank is serious when he wears a tie and romantic or relaxed without…that’s how broad Shadrock’s direction runs. It panders when it should pounce and hum – it is as if she distrusts the book, production elements, her cast and worse the audience.
This production aims to hit major markets on tour through out the next year. It starts with a bang (gunshots), features a stellar laconic turn by Mills with one key harmonic/comedic highlight. The orchestrations by Chris Egan are unnecessarily bombastic. The underscoring squelches any potential dramatic tension and illustrates an annoying inherent distrust of audience’s intelligence. The production design is stellar with strong lighting (Mark Henderson) and set also by Tim Hatley.
The production misses the mark with book. There’s not a lot of humor. The plot stops for many of the first act numbers. Logic doesn’t exist for much of this world and that’s okay because you’re never more than two or three minutes away from a soaring song by Cox and Richardson. The climax comes quickly but jars momentarily to allow for an unnecessary costume change and campy unexpected cinematic montage of Rachel and Frank. Duncan McLean’s video projections are substandard video game artificial and distract from the climax. Shadrock has a chance to let Cox soar (literally) and she undermines her singing to justify an unflattering costume, slick lighting, and a rising platform.
Where Cox and Richardson soar or attempt to breathe life into the production, the designers and director sap and detract. This is truly a shame. But this slick, well-sung, efficient entertainment is poised and graced with its three leads and hit the right notes consistently enough to allow a weak book and wimpering direction to not undermine them. There’s dignity and strength, beauty and lushness to every note from Richardson and Cox.
The Bodyguard The Musical runs through January 1st at Paper Mill Playhouse (22 Brookside Drive) in Millburn, NJ. Tickets are available at papermill.org. Tour dates for the production are available at http://www.thebodyguardmusical.com
All photos by Matthew Murphy except for the last, which is by Jerry Dalia.