Over a dozen of Whitney Houston’s Greatest Hits performed by an electrifying Deborah Cox in the screen-to-stage tale of a superstar pop diva and her obsessed, life-threatening stalker may not be great art. Indeed, it’s not even a traditional song-propelled musical per se. But no matter. I enjoyed just about every minute of The Bodyguard, the West End smash now touring the U.S.A. and stopping this week and next at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts.

Whitney fans flocked to their neighborhood multiplexes back in 1992 when Houston, already seven years into chart-topping superstardom, made her big-screen debut as multiple-Grammy winner Rachel Marron, a velvet-voiced single mom whose joy at being Oscar-nominated is tempered by the death threats she’s been receiving from an unknown would-be assailant.

 No wonder then that her management team take it upon themselves to hire seasoned pro Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) to protect her, an assignment that soon has the former Secret Service agent taking over bodyguard duties from Tony Scibelli (Alex Corrado) while getting to know Rachel’s publicist Sy Spector (Jonathan Hadley), manager Bill Delvaney (Charles Gray), and choreographer Rory (Bradford Rahmlow), along with her young son Fletcher (Douglas Baldeo) and her sister Nikki (Jasmin Richardson), the latter clearly living in the shadow of her world-famous sibling.

Majorly bummed about an outsider’s intrusion into her happy household, Rachel refuses to take safety threats seriously until Frank rescues her from fans gone wild over her medley of “Million Dollar Bill,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” and “So Emotional,” and when bodyguard charms superstar with his karaoke rendition of “I Will Always Love You,” it’s not long before Rachel is being filled up (her words, not mine) by “All The Man I Need.”

 Still there’s the pesky matter of that deranged stalker, and with the upcoming Oscar ceremony providing her would-be killer a potentially worldwide audience for his nefarious plans, even love with the proper bodyguard does not promise smooth sailing ahead for the international megastar.

Book writer Alexander Dinelaris has done a more-than-competent job of streamlining Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay, and since the film’s half-dozen or so songs (“I Will Always Love You” and dueling Oscar nominees “I Have Nothing” and “Run To You” among them) do not a full-length stage musical make, to that list has been added just about every Top Ten Whitney smash you could wish for.

“So Emotional,” “One Moment in Time,” “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” “Saving All My Love for You,” and “All At Once,” you name a Whitney Houston hit, it’s probably in The Bodyguard, the latter two allowing Nikki to prove that outside her superstar sister’s shadow, she herself might have been a contender instead of an envious sibling.

 Cardboard characters, action-movie plot, and a somewhat draggy second act aside, The Bodyguard delivers on all musical counts thanks to the sensational Grammy-nominated Cox, with choreographer Karen Bruce giving us one excitingly staged pop concert dance sequence after another lit with Staples Center-ready flash by Mark Henderson and backed by whiz musical director Matthew Smedal and The Bodyguard’s rocking eight-piece band.

Mills makes for a terrific opposites-attract Frank, and casting a leading man who doesn’t have to pretend to be an only-passable singer (Judson’s karaoke efforts at “I Will Always Love You” delight in their well-meaningness) proves inspired.

 As for Richardson (who steps into Rachel’s heels on Saturday matinees and Sunday evenings), the recent Dreamgirls star not only gets to show off her own spectacular set of pipes, she wins audience hearts as in-her-sister’s-shadow Nikki.

Corrado, Jarid Faubel (Ray Court), Gray, Hadley, Jorge Paniagua (The Stalker), Rahmlow (also Rory), and Matthew Schmidt (Klingman, Douglas, DJ, Jimmy, Stage Manager, and Oscar Host) provide topnotch support, but child performer Baldeo’s singing proves more convincing than his acting.

 Completing the cast to triple-threat perfection are  Brendon Chan, Megan Elyse Fulmer (College Girl), Alejandra Matos, dance captain Benjamin Rivera, Jaquez André Sims, Nicole Spencer, swing Lauren Tanner (Backup Vocalist, College Girl), and Naomi C. Walley (College Girl).

Director Thea Sharrock merits high marks for keeping things from veering too far into camp territory and for maintaining suspense throughout, and she is aided enormously by Richard Brooker’s thrill-inducing sound design.

 Scenic designer Tim Hatley keeps The Bodyguard looking stylish, his fabulous costumes running the gamut from all-business to all-glamour, and Campbell Young Associates’ hair, wigs, and makeup make Cox look even more stunning, with Duncan McLean’s black-and-white video design adding cinematic flair.

Like Tannner, swings Willie Dee, Sean Rozanski (fight captain), and Maria Cristina Slye are poised to go on at a moment’s notice.

Assistant director Frank Thompson and assistant choreographer Amy Thornton keep The Bodyguard’s National Tour in tiptop shape. Melissa Chacon is production stage manager.

In less capable hands, The Bodyguard might have entered so-bad-it’s-good territory, the stage equivalent of Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls. Though unlikely ever to find itself competing for a Best Musical Tony, The Bodyguard The Musical does precisely what it sets out to do. It entertains.

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Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
May 30, 2017
Photos: Joan Marcus


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