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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Adelphi


  Heather Headley/ Ph: Paul Coltas

There are two reasons this new show’s been dubbed "the Whitney musical." One, it’s a theatrical version of the 1992 box office smash starring the late pop-soul diva Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. Two, all of the music used in it (15 tracks, to be precise) is derived either from the movie or the singer’s back catalogue of recordings. What we have here is a double mash-up: a jukebox musical and a stage adaptation of an erstwhile film that was itself a blend of thriller and romance.
The first half of Thea Sharrock’s production functions like a well-oiled machine, thanks in large part to Tim Hatley’s sleek design in which scenes open up or close down with cinematic economy. Things start with a bang as Lloyd Owens’ terse, deep-voiced bodyguard Frank Farmer shoots an unidentified assailant. I’ve no idea who or why, but it serves to establish Farmer’s credentials as a reliable protector. From there we plunge into the stage persona of his next, albeit reluctant, client, superstar singer and recent Oscar nominee Rachel Marron (Tony winner Heather "Aida" Headley, back on the boards after a long hiatus). The number of which she is the spiderish centre is "Queen of the Night," staged as an enjoyable trashy piece of quasi-baroque chic with plenty of flash and flame.
Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay kicked around Hollywood for years as a potential star vehicle. Steve McQueen was first choice for Frank, with Ryan O’Neal, Alec Baldwin and Charlie Sheen among those considered in his wake, while the possible Rachels ran a gamut from Ross, Streisand, Minnelli and Summer to Cher, Madonna and Dolly "I Will Always Love You" Parton. Headley and Owen easily cast off Houston and Costner’s shadows, even if neither one can really dance. In the context of this plot-driven potboiler, that hardly matters for Frank’s character; as the strong, silent and stone-faced type, Owen doesn’t even need to sing (although, cleverly, he does so just once; see below). Headley, an attractive, confident and focused actor, is gifted with such a soaring set of Grammy-winning pipes that her lack of steps and pelvic thrust do her performance little serious damage.  And yet, as an astute friend pointed out, she’s playing Rachel in maybe too patrician a manner – rather like Michelle Obama recast as a pop star. Bristling with a demanding but rather glacial aura of class, Headley’s Rachel could benefit from just a touch of vulgarity that might’ve shown in her body.
Despite these physical limitations, Headley’s warm air of genial flirtation helps make the scene where Rachel and Frank go out on a first date work. Alexander Dinelaris’ book inherits the contrived, textureless and tissue-thin tone of Kasdan’s screenplay, but he – or someone – had at least one bright idea: Place the couple in a karaoke bar. There Rachel nails Frank’s background so closely that he has little choice but to rise to her challenge by getting up to sing. His selection: what else but a sweet, mournful little country tune called "I Will Always Love You?" Afterwards, Rachel herself sings (something else) at full-throttle, inserting an endearing little giggle into the power-balladry. She and Frank sway together, too, allowing the story’s cornball side to bloom, satisfyingly, for a moment.
The thriller element works, too, about as effectively – that is to say, shallowly – as in the film. Rachel is being stalked by a psychotic fan (Mark Letheren), hence Frank’s presence in her life. There’s also trouble closer to home, as embodied by the star’s sister Nicki, a fine but lesser singer whose chip on the shoulder extends from childhood to the present day via her own attraction to Frank. To her credit, Debbie Kurup, perfectly cast, does all she can with an unavoidably thankless role.
Team Sharrock’s handling of the action scenes varies from impressive (a nightclub set-piece at the climax of which Frank scoops Rachel up into his arms, duplicating the movie’s memorable advertising image) to perfunctory (a chase in the woods realised as a film projection, and the climactic Academy Awards ceremony; pity more wasn’t done with the latter). There are also a few notably odd or off-key moments, such as Rachel unwittingly singing the risibly post-coital lyric "He fills me up" as Frank’s asleep in her bed; a needless and crudely stereotypical would-be laugh line ("You’re big. … I’m just saying!") uttered by a gay character backstage at the Oscars; and, most weirdly and unconvincingly, an animal carcass planted in Rachel’s son’s bed by the stalker.
Inevitably, the grand finale has Rachel launching into a high-octane rendition, a la Houston, of Parton’s song. Great as Headley’s voice is, the ensuing standing ovation seemed de rigueur. I was on my feet, too, mainly to witness the encore: Headley in a yellow puffball skirt leading the supporting cast and ensemble in the up-beat Whitney hit "I Wanna Dance with Somebody." The show’s feel-good factor didn’t fill me up, but I can’t deny enjoying The Bodyguard on its own slick and cheesy terms.


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