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Theater review: Houston’s hits and strong vocals keep ‘The Bodyguard’ alive

SHARE Theater review: Houston’s hits and strong vocals keep ‘The Bodyguard’ alive

"The Bodyguard: The Musical," through Dec. 10, The George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater, 131 Main Street (801-355-2787 or artsaltlake.org); running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)

SALT LAKE CITY — The musical stage adaptation of “The Bodyguard” opened at the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater Tuesday night with a bang — literally.

While folks were still milling around, chatting and getting settled a very loud gunshot opened the show, leaving many in the audience gasping for breath. The curtain then rose, the lights dimmed and the show went on with a few more gunshots.

It was perhaps a needlessly startling beginning to a musical in a day and age where a dimmed light or a musical note or two could give audience members a bit of a warning, especially considering recent headlines. The shot took many in the audience a minute or two to calm down.

However, that shot did get "The Bodyguard" off and running. Based on the popular 1992 film, starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner, the stage adaptation is essentially a love note to the famous diva. With a few slightly tweaked plot points, the musical is really a vehicle for delivering as many of Houston’s pop hits as possible.

“All At Once,” “Greatest Love of All,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “One Moment in Time,” “How Will I Know,” “Saving All My Love” — the hits came fast in the production. In fact, you’ll almost be surprised at how many mega-hits Houston had. And obviously, the show features songs from the film as well, including the show-stopping “I Will Always Love You.”

Briefly, “The Bodyguard” tells the story of pop diva Rachel, who has a stalker and is receiving threatening letters. Her manager brings in Frank Farmer, played by Judson Mills, a former member of the Secret Service with years of security experience to protect Rachel, her son and sister. Rachel finds his intense security measure stifling and it takes some time before she sees the true danger in her situation.

While the stage adaptation is full of wonderful Houston hits, some of the other changes don’t work quite as well. The stage production introduced a clumsy love-triangle between Frank and Rachel's sister, Nicki, played by understudy Naomi C. Walley. Although Nicki spends a fair amount of stage time singing forlorn love songs about Frank, their relationship is underdeveloped, leaving the audience to wonder how Frank would ever have known she has feelings for him at all.

Nicki also hints at a strained relationship with Rachel, which could have fueled part of the drama, but again, it feels anemic and unsubstantial.

The real star of this show, however, isn't the drama, it's the music and on that account, "The Bodyguard" delivers, thanks in large part to its leading lady. A pop star in her own right, Canadian singer Deborah Cox brings Houston's hits to life — all while sashaying in sparkly dresses and very high heels. Walley, as Nicki, gave Cox a run for her money with her powerful voice, and Kevelin B. Jones III, as 10-year-old Fletcher, Rachel's son, has impressive vocal chops as well.

The acting, however, didn't rise to the level of the singing. Mills as Frank Farmer, while handsome (a la Costner in the film) is too stoic, and many of Rachel’s staff appear to be more caricatures than actual people.

Jorge Paniagua is adequately creepy and unsettling as the stalker, with lighting effects (Mark Henderson, design) spotlighting his abrupt appearances. That said, there are blocking choices that felt unsettling — such as when Paniagua as the stalker takes the stage and proceeds to point his gun at the audience, beginning at the orchestra and slowly moving toward the third balcony.

The concert scenes with Cox at the helm scenes are fun and high energy, but they are loud (take earplugs) and Henderson’s lighting is garish as lights flash repeatedly into the eyes of audience members.

Likewise, Tim Hatley’s set design utilizes both actual set pieces and large digital projections which do not always work and tended to distract rather than add to the action on stage.

In all, if you go for the music, you won’t be disappointed. It's the kind of night that will inspire you to go home and revisit Houston’s greatest hits so you can actually sing along … just like you wanted to all evening.

Erica Hansen was the theater editor at the Deseret News for more than three years. An area performer, she was also the original host of the radio program "Showtune Saturday Night."