By the time the time GRAMMY-nominated Deborah Cox belts out “I Will Always Love You,” one of many sweeping musical power ballads in Paper Mill Playhouse’s current production of The Bodyguard The Musical, one thing is evident: I still miss Whitney Houston. This grandiose adaptation of the 1992 thriller that starred Ms. Houston as a pop star with a stalker and her bodyguard, played by Kevin Costner, was never a great film to begin with, but it generated the best-selling soundtrack of all time, with such hits as “I’m Every Woman” and “I Have Nothing.”
Somehow producers secured rights to the songbook and the stage musical was born: a clunky, poorly staged version that begs the question “Why?” The plot follows Rachel Marron (Deborah Cox) as she enlists the services of bodyguard Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) to protect her from the advances of a stalker (Jorge Paniagua). Rachel is none too interested in Frank’s methods as her career is at breakthrough moment with a potential Academy Award looming in the future. But she’s got a family to protect, namely her son Fletcher (alternately played by Douglas Baldeo and Kevelin B. Jones III) and sister Nicki (a terrific Jasmin Richardson). A love interest begins to brew and the pair eventually find themselves entangled in the bed sheets.
After a break-in at her estate, Rachel realizes that she must trust Frank and he whisks her off to his cabin in the woods, but in true thriller fashion, the stalker shows up and somebody doesn’t make it out alive. (No spoilers here!) At the Academy Awards, Rachel gives the performance of a lifetime—perhaps her last if her stalker has his way. But Frank returns to save the day.
The plot line has been simplified from the film version to become merely a thin veil for the familiar songs, and while Paniagua’s stalker is supremely creepy, it’s a one-dimensional story that doesn’t get much help from Mills’ emotionless, cardboard performance as the tough guy with a heart of gold.
Secondary characters like Rachel’s manager Bill Devaney (Charles Gray) and sleazy agent (Jonathan Hadley) are uncomfortably cliché, as are most of the ensemble, who resort to posturing, hip-popping, hair-flipping, and pantomime whenever they’re not engaged in Karen Bruce’s theme park choreography—the exception being a fantastically dynamic Latin-themed number set to “I’m Every Woman.”
Cox, who has the nearly impossible task of tackling nearly a dozen hits made famous by Houston, does so in spades. She dives into the high-range melodies with deceptive ease, reminding us why she has six studio albums under her belt. Her chemistry with Mills is forced at best, but it’s a valiant effort. By the middle of Act II, I wished that I were simply watching Deborah Cox deliver a Whitney Houston tribute concert and forego the rest.
The Bodyguard The Musical is the latest in a series of movie-to-musical productions at Paper Mill Playhouse, which was the recipient of the 2016 Regional Theatre Tony Award. Last year’s A Bronx Tale transferred to Broadway after opening to mixed reviews, and even with award-winning Kathleen Marshall at the helm, Ever After’s hopes of a life after New Jersey were thwarted after mediocre reactions from critics and audiences.
Paper Mill has the benefit of its proximity to New York City to draw terrific talent and an apparently bottomless budget to pour into enhanced productions that on the surface look ready to plug into a larger commercial market, but what seems to be missing recently is a level of taste. The Bodyguard hasn’t done much to break the pattern.
The Bodyguard The Musical
Paper Mill Play House
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
Through January 1, 2017
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo.