'The Bodyguard' Protects Whitney Houston Legacy

I’ll admit to having no nostalgia for the movie on which “The Bodyguard The Musical” is based. In 1992, I was listening to grunge, punk and Swedish death metal, not Houston’s gospel-throated dance pop. I didn’t see the film until years after it was released and had forgotten most of the plot when I visited it again this week. My interest in this stage version is strictly theatrical — there aren’t enough old-fashioned melodramatic thrillers around this days. As “The Bodyguard The Musical” proves, a gripping stage adventure still excites and amuses, even when it may turn tacky and obvious.

The body that “The Bodyguard The Musical” is protecting is a body of work — the songs of Whitney Houston. However hokey the show’s action plot becomes, it is not allowed to tamper with her glory.

That need to preserve Houston’s hit-record legacy makes “The Bodyguard The Musical” one of those rare musical theater tours these days to enlist a bona fide famous singing star to lead its national tour. Deborah Cox (the Canadian R&B vocalists who’s logged more than a dozen chart-topping dance hits) acknowledges Houston as an influence, recorded with her (for the 2000 single “Same Script, Different Cast”) and even impersonated her voice for the Lifetime TV movie “I Will Always Love You: The Whitney Houston Story.”

But it’s not Cox who played Rachel Marron on the first night of the musical’s weeklong stop at The Bushnell. The singer was delayed in returning from a tour break because she lives in Parkland, Fla., where last week’s school shooting happened. Cox tweeted that her family was safe, but it makes sense that she would wish to stay home a bit longer.

This coincidence gave “The Bodyguard The Musical” an unexpected topicality. The show begins with loud gunfire, which continues to erupt at random moments throughout the evening. The villain is a weapons-obsessed loner who has kills out of fanatical love for the woman of his dreams. While its innate staginess, romantic subplots and shimmering dance numbers make “The Bodyguard” a lot less menacing and disturbing than, say, Julia Cho’s school-shooting drama “Office Hour” at the Long Wharf Theatre last month, the constant brandishing of firearms is still alarming if you’ve come to the theater straight from watching the news.

Cox was scheduled to rejoin the show Wednesday for her performances through Sunday.

Jasmin Richardson, previously expected to perform as Rachel Marron for just the Saturday matinee and Sunday evening shows, stepped in for Cox on Tuesday. She carries the role of Rachel Marron with confidence. She interacts very comfortably with the supporting cast (of which she is often a member, playing the role of Rachel’s sister Nikki when Cox is Rachel). Most importantly, she can sing up a storm, managing those tricky Whitney Houston trills and wails.

The title role of Frank Farmer, the FBI agent hired to protect Rachel (who refuses to interrupt a major concert tour and Academy Award ceremony appearance despite regular threats to her safety) is played by Judson Mills. It’s a non-singing role, with the exception of Frank’s intentionally horrible karaoke performance of the original Dolly Parton version of “I Will Always Love You.” Mills is a strapping, likable lantern-jawed lug who can shift from charming to graceful to goofy to intense based on the needs of a scene. While the Rachel role closely mimics Houston in the film, Mills is not in a position to just do what Kevin Costner did. He accesses traditional theater leading man cliches and powers through the piece with a smile and a wink.

The previous movie-into-stage-show example that “The Bodyguard The Musical” most resembles is “Saturday Night Fever,” for the way it turns subtext into text. Song lyrics that underscored scenes of the film are now sung directly by the main characters. Rachel sings “The Greatest Love of All” (which begins “I believe the children are our future”) while watching her son Fletcher play.

Some songs are better suited to this purpose than others. The less explicit or poetic ones (such as “Queen of the Night” with its nattering chorus of “Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah”) are put into service as full-cast dance spectacles. Some of the dancers’ quick changes from one minor character to another are as impressive as Rachel’s multiple glamorous costume changes.

The songs anchor both the plot and the action, but the show is staged so that no one element needs to be relied upon too heavily. Dramatic moments happen in the background of song and dance numbers. Unless it’s The Stalker (Jorge Paniagua) shown preparing for his sullen pursuit of Rachel, there’s always more than one person onstage at any given time. You’re well aware of all the 20-odd cast members.

There’s some genuine talent behind the scenes here. Alexander Dinelaris, who adapted Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay, is the Oscar-winning writer of the movie “Birdman” who also crafted the jukebox musical “On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan” (coming to The Bushnell in June). Director Thea Sharrock’s resume includes lauded revivals of Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls,” Peter Shaffer’s “Equus” and Moliere’s “The Misanthrope.”

“The Bodyguard The Musical” doesn’t indulge in the sort of whimsical self-mockery that another musical movie adaptation “Dirty Dancing — The Classic Story on Stage” uses so well. This time, if the story happens to get trite and dopey at times, the actors don’t play it up. They play it straight. The ‘90s setting is liberated enough to allow for selfies or photo-sending via phones, but old-school break dancing and pre-Gaga cheerleader-like stage costumes figure in there, too. There are projections, smoke machines, gold sequins. That’s the kind of action show this is — earnest, but incredibly flashy. It puts the “act” in “action.”

THE BODYGUARD is at the The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, through Feb. 25. Remaining performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $22.50 to $119. 860-987-5900 and bushnell.org.

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