Theatre Review: The Bodyguard is salvaged by the songs of Whitney Houston (performances until June 25th)

Through May and June, Sydney’s The Lyric Theatre will serve as the first Australian venue to host The Bodyguard, a production which is as much a tribute to the life and music of Whitney Houston as her iconic 1992 feature-film debut of the same name. I write “iconic” because the film is fondly remembered for the electric performance the late, great diva brought to the otherwise so-so tale of a pop superstar, Rachel Marron (played by lead Paulini Curuenavuli), who falls in love with the bodyguard employed to protect her from a persistent stalker. Of course, there’s much more to the film’s plot than that, but presenting the bare bones is purposeful, as that’s pretty much all one will find in Alexander Dinelaris‘s economical adaptation. Lawrence Kasdan’s original screenplay has been significantly reduced, stripping away details (as well as characters and sub-plots) to make room for a more-is-more approach to Whitney Houston’s back-catalogue, including songs which weren’t in the film nor on its record-holding soundtrack.

On the surface, there’s little wrong with this approach. Rather than take itself too seriously, this All-Australian (touring) adaptation of the hit West End musical is an infectiously playful and endearing two hours and twenty minutes, buoyed by some refreshing ideas, a strong lead, and that ever-reliable pop and crackle of timeless classics like “How Will I Know?” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” blended with the raw power of ballads “I Have Nothing” and “I Will Always Love You”. The upbeat tone and seat-rising finale owe much to Dinelaris’ work, but in snipping small details from the plot the writer has essentially sacrificed some much-needed character development and ensured that the few dynamics on stage are barely believable enough to push this as anything more than good fun.

This is most obvious when looking at the story’s most memorable, and tragic, supporting character, Nicki Marron (played well by the underrated Prinnie Stevens). Dinelaris has erased the (separate) hit-man character from this production, merging him with the stalker which essentially forces a rework of Nicki’s development and gives her character a much less dynamic role to play in the overall story, not to mention softening the big reveal. This new development, though giving Nicki more stage-time and Prinnie a chance to nail “Saving All My Love”, unfortunately, has her feeling out-of-place in the story.

Much of the same can be said for Frank Farmer, Rachel’s bodyguard. Though actor Kip Gamblin has a commanding presence throughout the musical, the absence of crucial supporting characters – like Frank’s father or Rachel’s driver – ultimately weakens his character and doesn’t give Kip much to work with. Granted, the experienced actor is otherwise excellent in the role, particularly when he drives the script’s stand-out scene where Frank takes Rachel to a karaoke bar and gives a performance playing on the self-awareness that saves this musical from its weaker moments.

Like the karaoke scene, there are some nice ideas in both the script and the direction – handled by Thea Sharrock – including a big moment for the silent stalker (Brendan Irving in a role so paper-thin he could sleepwalk through it) who is tracked in a nightclub scene through the use of spotlights and slow-motion, bringing the production’s only real sense of tension. There’s also the subversive closer, livening the finale with a celebratory rendition of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” – a smart move that speaks to the primary reason this touring musical will sell: Whitney.

Channelling a talent even close to Whitney Houston would be challenging for even the biggest pop stars around, and yet Curuenavuli is more than capable as she fills the role of Rachel Marron. Though at times her performance outside of the musical numbers can appear one-note, the singer does plenty with what she’s given, bringing a bite and finesse that appears to be partly chiselled from Beyoncé as much as Houston. Rachel’s stubbornness and the way she commands the stage are expressed well, only to be shed as the story progresses, morphing into vulnerability and uncertainty; Curuenavuli handles this development with great skill. And then there’s the singing: powerful and expressive with the right nuance to fit these non-film songs into the context, even when their inclusion shouldn’t make much sense. Her finest moments come with the ballads; “I Have Nothing” remaining the highlight while “I Will Always Love You” is slightly ruined by some very tacky projections and a melodramatic rise on a poorly designed hydraulic lift, the melodrama of which detracts from Curuenavuli’s glitzy costume.

Other aspects, such as embarrassingly bare stage design, some childish sexual innuendo and an underwhelming orchestra, do soften the impact this musical could have had, although there is plenty of endearing work throughout. A strong cast who do the most with what they’re given is what holds it together, but ultimately the saving grace is having two strong voices powering through a lovingly curated set list of Whitney classics, some of which fit the story and some of which are wedged in for fun. For that, Paulini and Prinnie are invaluable.

The Bodyguard will play at Sydney Lyric Theatre until 25th June before travelling to Brisbane (from 19th July) and Melbourne (from 24th August). For more information and tickets click HERE.

Feature image: Jeff Bubsy.