By Adam Cohen
There are two primary reasons to see ‘The Bodyguard: The Musical,’ currently playing at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ: Deborah Cox and Jasmine Richardson. If Cox weren’t already a star, she would be after this production. She is a vocal dynamo recreating the Whitney Houston catalogue, playing the lead role of Rachel Marron, and putting her own styling, shading, and vocal theatrics to hits like “I Will Always Love You,” “I’m Every Woman,” “How Will I Know,” and “One Moment In Time.”
Richardson, who plays Rachel’s sister Nicki, matches Cox note-for-note and brings a nuanced beautiful tone to every song. They duet to great effectiveness and shake the rafters of Paper Mill mightily.
The production clocks in at an efficient two hours. Thea Shadrock directs a book by Academy Award winner Alexander Dinelaris (“Birdman,” Broadway’s “On Your Feet!”) based on Lawrence Kasdan’s original screenplay. Dinelaris dispenses with much exposition, and at times logic, getting to the songs as quickly. This is a mixed blessing. Great for listening to wonderful singing, less so for those trying to follow along.
The broad brushstrokes, for those who may not remember the details of the film, are as follows: Cox is Rachel Marron, an Academy Award-nominated singer-songwriter. She’s been getting menacing letters from a fan. A dress is stolen. Her team hires former Secret Service Agent Frank (Judson Mills) to be her bodyguard. Nicki is a co-writer and a stellar but unappreciated singer of her own. Nicki pines for Frank, but after a night of karaoke confessions Frank and Rachel get romantic. The menacing letters continue and with Rachel and Frank at an evening performance, Rachel’s son’s life in threatened. The drama unfolds and resolves from there. Will Frank and Rachel find true love together? Will Rachel score that Oscar? Will she find a follow-up project worthy of her talents?
Stellar acting and singing performances back Shadrock’s production. The ensemble singer and dancers bring joy to every number. Karen Bruce’s choreography strongly matches each song, veering from music video slick, to Broadway, Salsa, and aerobic acrobatics. Tim Hatley’s costumes are bright, and realistic for large production numbers in clubs or arenas.
Unfortunately, the production misses the mark with its book. The plot stops for many of the first act numbers. Logic doesn’t exist for much of this world and that’s okay because you’re never more than two or three minutes away from a soaring song by Cox and Richardson. The climax comes quickly but jars momentarily to allow for an unnecessary costume change and campy unexpected cinematic montage of Rachel and Frank.
But this slick, well-sung, efficient entertainment is poised and graced with its three leads and hits the right notes consistently enough to allow a weak book and direction to not undermine them. There’s dignity and strength, beauty and lushness brought out by Richardson and Cox.
“The Bodyguard: The Musical” runs through January 1st at Paper Mill Playhouse. Tickets are available at www.PaperMill.org.