Thursday, January 12, 2017

Whitney Lives On in The Bodyguard

I have always felt that playing roles of real-life people are the hardest of all. 

Photo by Joan Marcus.
This is especially true of iconic celebrities; get it right, and you are a superstar. Fail, and it could end your career.

We've been gifted with marvelous performances of Ray Charles, Malcom X, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Johnny Cash and more. We can now add Deborah Cox's starring turn in The Bodyguard to that list.

Now I realize that The Bodyguard is a fictional story and of a very different kind of content than the biopics listed above, but let's be frank: nothing embodies the heights of the peerless late-Whitney Houston's career than her dazzling songs in The Bodyguard movie. The pop hits that emerged from that movie live on in dance halls to this day 25 years later, and many have tried (and failed) to recreate the gorgeous, dizziness inducing performances that Whitney blessed us all with.

So even though The Bodyguard is a popular movie adaptation and not a true story, I couldn't help but view this production as the vanguard of Whitney's legacy, somehow. And I'll admit, I had low expectations; I didn't really love the film, and I didn't see how it would work well on stage. So I was pleasantly surprised with how delightful this staging was. It's campy, it's Hollywood, and I know some people don't consider that to be true "theater." But for me, live performances become magical when they contain a certain spark and fire and passion regardless of their context; even the most avant garde pieces can fall flat for lack of feeling, and this was a beautiful demonstration of what could have been a cheap knockoff turning into a wonderful live theater experience thanks to performers who give it 100,000%.

For a brief summary if you haven't seen the film: Rachel Marron is a world famous pop star (in today's parlance, think Beyonce level) trying to have a normal family life amidst her interstellar fame. Unfortunately she is being threatened by a highly skilled stalker who holds delusional fantasies about having a relationship with her. After his threats become more frequent and more dangerous, Rachel's security hires a new bodyguard named Frank Farmer. Frank thinks outside the box and is a vast improvement in keeping Rachel safe, in more ways than one. The show follows their tumultuous relationship as they find the balance between security and normal life, and their love story in between. The Bodyguard has a bittersweet ending despite catching the bad guy that lends it an air of authenticity that helps sell the zealous plot.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
One big thing to note: the show opens with a huge, unforeseen gunshot. Anyone who goes needs to be prepared for the TRIGGER WARNING at the beginning of the show - it was extremely unsettling in our times of mass public shootings, and I wish for everyone's mental health that they flagged it ahead of time.

The number one selling point of this show is the music, featuring many of Whitney Houston's biggest hits such as "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," "All At Once," "I Have Nothing," "Greatest Love of All," "One Moment in Time," "Run to You," "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" and the coup de grace, "I Will Always Love You." This playlist is no slouch; many of these songs are incredibly fast paced and require a certain vocal gymnastics to really sell them.

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Thankfully, Deborah Cox (playing Rachel Merron and performing all of these songs live; see clips in the video above) is up to the task, and how. She sells the *shit* out of this show. Rachel Merron's story could be relatively uninteresting, especially in our times of celebrity overexposure (helloooo Kardashians), but Cox infuses Rachel with a deep sense of relatability and a passionate heart. And her singing is virtuosic, particularly in her (literally) showstopping rendition of "I Will Always Love You." Cox nails every note of that gorgeous ballad, and literally left the audience leaping to their feat. If for no other reason, see the show for that one song. You owe it to yourself (and the memory of Ms. Whitney) to do so.

The rest of the cast is equally talented. Jasmin Richardson is incredible as Rachel's sister Nicki, demonstrating another unbelievably beautiful musical talent. Jasmin has some dazzling duet moments, both with Deborah and with Kevelin B. Jones III, who plays Rachel Merron's son Fletcher. Kevelin also has a wonderful voice, and together the Merron trio of Jasmin, Deborah and Kevelin put out a heart stopping rendition of "Jesus Loves Me," which I can only describe as the world's plainest song that gets the world's best musicality treatment. Normally I'd be bored, here I was enthralled; they are that good.

Judson Mills is square jawed, strong yet sympathetic as the stoic Frank Farmer. Judson is perfectly cast in this role and brings the Kevin Costner charm to his fearsome duty as the bodyguard. It's a good thing too, because Jorge Paniagua is absolutely terrifying as Rachel's Stalker. If we didn't have Judson calming us down and making us laugh, it would be tough to get past the chills that went down our spines as Jorge paraded around with his bowie knife. It's a testament to Jorge's effective creepiness that he was actually booed during the curtain call - a first in my years of theater-going.

It should be noted for eye candy fans that this show truly defines abtastic. Seriously, I saw more shred in the first five minutes than I think I have in the last five years combined - this is Magic Mike level. Is it a standalone reason to see the show? Nope. Is it still awesome (and campy and fun)? Absolutely. There are other campy moments in staging choices - I know the bad guy is a stalker, I get it, but does he *really* need an unzipped hoodie with nothing on underneath that is constantly lined in shadows, or the unbearably blunt phallic symbolism of stroking a truly enormous bowie knife right at pants zipper level? NOPE - but it didn't bother me. This show is a Hollywood movie, after all, and the campiness lent a little charm that I found quite endearing.

Photo by Joan Marcus.
This national tour of The Bodyguard is premiering here in Minneapolis, and I urge you to see it. This is a pure treacle and candy show, and we all deserve something a little sweet after the bitterness of 2016's disappointments. It was far, far better than I expected it to be, and any Whitney Houston fans can walk away proud of what they saw. My guy enjoyed the show even more than I did, so I can confirm that it's a great date night experience and will leave you both in smiles. Make sure to stay throughout the final credits, as the post-show performances are as good as the show itself. The Bodyguard only runs through January 15 so run to go get your tickets; you can do so by clicking on this link.