THE BODYGUARD - THE MUSICAL
THE BODYGUARD - THE MUSICAL, produced by John Frost and co at the Lyric Theatre Sydney 25 April-25 June; Lyric QPAC, Brisbane, July-August; Regent Melbourne August-September 2017. Photography by Jeff Busby
First things first: in the Australian production of the West End hit movie-turned-musical, Paulini Curuenavuli is sensational as Rachel Marron, the pop diva whose evil stalker necessitates the hiring of a bodyguard to protect her. To fill the shoes of none other than real life tragic diva Whitney Houston would be beyond most, but Curuenavuli not only does it, but also brings her own vocal persona to the party – somewhere between Whitney and Beyonce – and carries the show virtually singlehandedly on her bootylicious shoulders.
It’s quite a burden to bear, however, and on opening night at least she was helped by an audience of her own fans (squealing and emoting like the best boy band followers), Whitney fans (more squealing and emoting, but a bit older) and those for whom a night out at the Lyric isn’t complete without a couple of umbrella drinks before curtain up. It makes for a celebratory atmosphere and as the show starts with a – literal – bang, squealing is entirely appropriate and Our Paulini takes it all in stride.
The show is based on the 1992 romantic tear-jerker that starred Houston as the pop diva and Kevin Costner as her moonlighting Secret Service agent bodyguard, Frank Farmer. It was one of those cultural curiosities: a huge hit with the public (seventh highest grosser in the US for the year), while scoring just 32% on Rotten Tomatoes and listing high on the Razzies’ “100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made”.
The original movie script was by Lawrence Kasdan and it’s a pity it wasn’t adapted for the stage show as the book, by Alexander Dinelaris, is dire. It’s as stiff and unlikely as an inter-office memo and someone must have been fooled by his Oscar for the Birdman screenplay. Look closer at that credit and one sees he was part of a quartet and the other three were first language Spanish-speaking Argentinians; there’s surely a Waiting for Guffman/Christopher Guest sketch somewhere in there.
Nevertheless, The Bodyguard – The Musical is about the songs (many more than in the movie) and aside from Curuenavuli, there’s Prinnie Stevens as her ill-fated sister Nikki and she makes the most of her numbers, particularly a tender “Saving All My Love”; while the role of Rachel’s cute son Fletcher is shared between four Sydney youngsters and on opening night Rome Champion was a scene-stealer as singer and dancer.
A more imaginative approach to the adaptation for the musical stage would have found at least one top-tier song for a male voice; the lack of anything but six-pack chorus numbers for the lads is a major imbalance in what quickly becomes a mellow-drama as soul trill follows soul trill, follows...
The absence of meaty drama is also highlighted by the way The Stalker is handled – has Dinelaris never watched Jaws and seen how terrifying it is UNTIL the shark appears? Obviously not: Mr Creepy is there from the off. However, Brendan Irving is reasonably if inadvertently shuddery in the role through channelling Steven Seagal. But the sudden spotlit appearances and some hilarious Great Big Knife scenes seriously hamper his efforts as audients titter rather than gasp. Imagine how scary he could have been with something to sing like “My Friends” (Sweeney Todd’s love song to his razors.) Anyhoo...
One of the best scenes – and one that brings the ’90s story roaring into the second decade of the 21st century – is when Rachel and Frank sneak out to a karaoke dive. There they find three sozzled besties making their maudlin worst of a Marron hit before the (lightly) disguised superstar takes the mic and does an Adele on them – which of course has the girls scrabbling for phones and selfies; it’s a terrific moment: genuinely funny and real.
Unfortunately, what should be the heart of the show – the chemistry between the star and her protector – is fatally missing in action. The reason why is easy to spot. As Frank/Kevin, seasoned performer Kip Gamblin has inexplicably adopted the vocal delivery and emotional resonance of Keanu Reeves at his one-note worst. You only have to recall Diane Keaton’s expressions of utter bewilderment in the face of having to fancy the balsa wood Reeves in Something’s Gotta Give to realise what an unreasonably monumental task it is for non-actor Curuenavuli. To be fair to Gamblin, however, he does have a shining moment when he does a gorgeous Florence Foster Jenkins at the karaoke bar (see above), and there’s a glimpse of what might have been from the actor.
There is much colour and movement to distract and delight and, of course, there are the songs in what’s really a rare legitimate jukebox show. The set by Tim Hatley – mostly sliding flats where light plays a major role, along with neat settings for performers to be aboard and sledded on and off – fulfils the demands of place in a theatrical rather than filmic way. The least successful are those that attempt to recreate the movie and just cannot: the concert and club scenes. I suspect The Bodyguard would have been a very different show if it had been directed by Simon Phillips and choreographed by Kelly Abbey, but international needs must and at least there are no egregious imports on stage.
The Bodyguard – the Musical is Paulini Curuenavuli’s night and you’d have to say, a stage star is born in the two scant hours of the show, including the solid presence of an accomplished pit band led by David Skelton. The finale – all exuberance and spectacle as the company, led by Rachel/Paulini, woops up the audience with I Wanna Dance With Somebody – is more than enough to erase lingering doubts about what might have been and never was. You can see why it’s such a big hit with the nice night-outers. Recommended – with cocktails.