In December 2012, The Bodyguard – the musical inspired by the smash-hit 1992 Mick Jackson film – first took the stage at London’s Adelphi Theatre. It was a production led by Grammy and Tony Award-winner Heather Headley, playing the role created by the late Whitney Houston, and ultimately spent almost a year and a half on the West End. In 2013, the show received four Laurence Olivier Award nominations, including for the coveted Best Musical prize. A sell-out UK tour followed the West End run and, now, the show is playing Germany, The Netherlands, South Korea, Canada and touring the US, with productions also planned for Spain and Italy.
Last week, Australia finally got its first look at The Bodyguard’s live musical iteration, with the Australian tour kicking off at the Sydney Lyric. Directed by Thea Sharrock and with a book by Alexander Dinelaris (who won an Oscar as co-writer of the screenplay for Birdman), The Bodyguard is the story of Rachel Marron (Paulini Curuenavuli), an Oscar-nominated global pop superstar being targeted by a stalker (Brendan Irving) who’s sent her several letters and has managed to get within dangerously close proximity of the object of his obsession. Enter Frank Farmer (Kip Gamblin), a former Secret Service agent who agrees to join Marron’s team as her bodyguard.
After Marron and Farmer meet, it’s not long before they’re clashing over her day-to-day activities. But it’s also not long again before the hostility makes way for romance, much to the dismay of Marron’s sister, Nikki (Prinnie Stevens). Nikki, herself a talented singer and writer, has spent her life living in her sister’s shadow. Having developed her own feelings for Farmer, this is essentially the latest contest Nikki has lost to her sister. So, how will it all play out? Will Marron’s relationship with Farmer continue to extend well beyond the professional? Will it compromise his ability to protect her from an apparently sinister threat? And will others around Marron be hurt along the way?
While the film was an undeniable box office blockbuster, it was never a darling of the critics. Its soundtrack, on the other hand, always received far wider praise. Not only is The Bodyguard’s soundtrack the highest selling soundtrack album of all time worldwide, but it also received three Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, and five of its songs became chart hits for Houston – ‘I’m Every Woman’, ‘I Have Nothing’, ‘Run to You’, ‘Queen of The Night’ and the Dolly Parton-penned global smash ‘I Will Always Love You’, which also became the highest-selling single by a woman in music history. In the stage musical, all of those cuts appear, accompanied by several other classics from Houston’s enormously popular back catalogue, including ‘One Moment in Time’, ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ and ‘How Will I Know?’ All in all, 16 Houston tracks are incorporated.
Just as the music is the most laudable aspect of the film, the songs are the reason to see The Bodyguard live on stage. The musical’s thin narrative is unsuccessful in building dramatic tension and creating a palpable sense that Marron is being menaced by a dangerous person. There’s also a questionable use of video projections and some awkward slow-motion sequences that fail to land as they should (even prompting some laughter on opening night). But when the time comes for a performance of one of Houston’s hits, you can’t help but be entertained. From opening number ‘Queen of The Night’ – staged as a live concert performance capped off with pyrotechnics and a high energy dance routine by choreographer Karen Bruce – to ‘I Will Always Love You’ – performed by the diva alone wearing an incredible gown by set and costume designer Tim Hatley – one quickly remembers why these songs have retained an affectionate place in people’s hearts (and their music collections) for the past 25 years. Musical director David Skelton’s work is also crucial here, ensuring the live reproduction of each of the 16 songs provides the audience the full wall of sound it expects.
Sharrock’s direction sees the show maintaining a brisk pace and there’s therefore never long to wait until the next number. Scene transitions are filmic in feel; there are actually transitions for which black sets are used to create a sense of an opening and closing camera shutter.
Making her first ever appearance on the musical theatre stage, Curuenavuli wows with vocal prowess that allows her to deliver each iconic track with impressive power. She has gorgeous tone and no difficulty commanding our attention when left alone on a cavernous stage with a spotlight. Curuenavuli sashays around the space with confidence and holds her own in ensemble numbers with the highly-trained troupe of dancers. She’s a convincing diva, and will no doubt continue to grow as an actor, bringing greater dimension to her characterisation of Marron. But make no mistake, Curuenavuli is here first and foremost to give audiences a vocal performance worthy of the legendary Houston, and there’s no question as to how tremendously she delivers on that front.
As Farmer – the role made famous on screen by Kevin Costner – Gamblin doesn’t have much of an opportunity to develop a character beyond being able to convey the bodyguard’s no-nonsense, sober attitude. He certainly looks the part and does what the script requires of him, but is given only a fleeting opportunity to demonstrate a fleshed out personality. A scene in a karaoke club, in which Farmer gets up to give an uncomfortable performance of ‘I Will Always Love You’, is a rare chance he has to do so (incidentally, the karaoke club scene, in which three drunk female patrons react when they realise they’re in the presence of their idol, is one of the most entertaining moments of the evening). It’s a shame that Gamblin, who is a highly accomplished actor, dancer and choreographer, isn’t afforded a greater opportunity to showcase his talents.
As Nikki, Stevens also proves she has the vocal chops to take on Houston’s challenging repertoire. There’s a softness and melancholy in her portrayal of Nikki, and it works well for her character. Stevens makes the best that she can of the moments she has on stage. An Act I performance of ‘Saving All My Love’, which sees Nikki singing the song in a cosy club, is highly enjoyable.
If you’re looking to whisk yourself off for a night at the theatre to be swept up by a gripping and sophisticated story, The Bodyguard won’t fit the bill. But if it’s a night of pure, unadulterated, escapist fun you’re after, including live performances of some of pop music’s greatest gems, The Bodyguard has the stuff that you want and the thing that you need.
THE BODYGUARD – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre, The Star
Season: Playing now until 25 June
Performance Times: Tues 7pm, Wed-Sat 8pm, Matinees Tues & Wed 1pm, Sat & Sun 2pm, Sun 6pm
Prices: From $69.90*
Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au or 1300 795 267
Groups 8+ call 1300 889 278
* A ticketmaster handling fee of $8.45 will be levied at purchase. A delivery fee may also apply depending on the chosen delivery method
Venue: Lyric Theatre, QPAC
Season: From 19 July
Performance Times: Wed to Sat 7.30pm, Matinees Wed 1pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 1pm & 6pm
Prices: From $69.90*
Bookings: qpac.com.au or 136 246
Groups 8+ call 07 3840 7466
* Transaction fees apply
Venue: Regent Theatre
Season: From 24 August
Performance Times: Tues 7pm, Wed/Thurs 7.30pm, Fri/Sat 8pm, Matinees Tues & Wed 1pm, Sat & Sun 2pm, Sun 6pm (performance times vary weekly)
Price: Tickets from $69.90*
Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100
Groups 8+ 1300 889 278
* A Ticketmaster handling fee of $8.90 will be levied at purchase. A delivery fee may also apply depending on the chosen delivery method