Whitney Houston fans will be delighted by The Bodyguard: The Musical, a rich R&B trip down memory lane adapted from Houston’s 1992 film. It features no fewer than 16 songs from the late superstar’s catalog – including "I Will Always Love You,” “I’m Every Woman,” “Run to You,” and “I Have Nothing”– delivered with uncanny verisimilitude and full-throated passion by Canadian R&B star Deborah Cox, singing with a live band.
Cox, who provided the vocals for director Angela Bassett’s 2015 Houston biopic, Whitney, doesn’t mimic Houston. She seems, rather, to channel the late singer’s spirit.
As if Cox weren’t impressive enough, the show also features a revelatory turn by supporting player Jasmin Richardson, who delivers heartbreaking renditions of two Houston songs, “Saving All My Love for You” and “All at Once.”
A touring production of a show that was first seen in London in 2012, The Bodyguard: The Musical opened Tuesday night at the Academy of Music and will run through Sunday.
It’s not hard to imagine why producers pounced on the idea of adapting Houston’s film as a musical; the Bodyguard soundtrack sold more than 45 million copies to become the best-selling soundtrack album of all time.
While the music is startling, impressive, and deeply moving, The Bodyguard: The Musical does disappoint when it comes to story and dialogue. Of course, the original picture was hardly a shining example of sterling storytelling.
A limping, hackneyed, cliché-ridden romance about a pop star who falls for her bodyguard, it featured a laughably stiff turn by a maladroit Kevin Costner as the title character, a soft-spoken stoic centurion straight out of antiquity (or the prop department) who knew how to sweep a gal off her feet and cradle her protectively in his sinewy arms.
It was the stuff of cheap romance paperbacks.
There was no way an insubstantial bit of silliness like that could survive the transition to stage, which demands that you boil a story down to a rich consommé. Instead, it has become a thin gruel.
It’s no wonder, then, that the show employs shadowy silhouettes, strobe-light-induced slow-motion sequences, and giant video projections to fluff up its plot, which remains flimsy despite the best efforts of writer Alexander Dinelaris, best known for his Oscar-winning screenplay for Birdman.
Cox, 42, plays Rachel Marron, a pop megastar, Oscar-nominated actor, single mom, and devoted sister who is being stalked by a crazed fan, a former Special Forces war hero who is convinced Rachel belongs to him – like 4-Ever!
Jorge Paniagua is compelling in a silent role as the scary dude whose menacing presence is – literally – writ large: He’s often projected onto a 30-foot screen, coming off like some hideous Grand Guignol giant.
And so enters Frank Farmer (Judson Mills), a bodyguard who agrees to work for Rachel because he feels for her young son, Fletcher (Douglas Baldeo).
Richardson is featured in a newly added subplot as Rachel’s sister Nicki, a talented singer in her own right who resents living in her sister’s shadow.
Mills (Walker, Texas Ranger, As the World Turns) is appropriately square-jawed, masculine, and rough around the edges. But even though he’s on stage in virtually every scene, he has very little to do save stand around as Cox belts out song after song.
It’s a problem shared by the show’s entire non-singing and non-dancing cast, whose acting, across the board, is weak, stiff, and over-rehearsed.
Thea Sharrock, an acclaimed, highly experienced British theater director whose recent work includes a remarkable 2012 BBC production of Henry V starring Tom Hiddleston, seems unable to elicit from the non-singing cast the same level of electricity and charisma so apparent during the musical performances. These range from quiet solo efforts featuring Cox alone on a darkened stage to elaborate production numbers ably choreographed by Karen Bruce to evoke the over-the-top spectacles put on by touring pop stars.
If The Bodyguard: The Musical has anything to offer – and it has plenty – it’s in the intensity, skill, and general grooviness of the songs. No fan of Houston, I was still bowled over by the tunes and went home humming.
“The Bodyguard,” through Sunday at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. Tickets: $20- $140. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.kimmelcenter.org.