Musicals based on movies (“The Lion King,” “School of Rock”) and musicals based on an artist’s repertoire (“Jersey Boys,” “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”) are all the rage on Broadway these days. But both types of shows carry the same inherent challenge: how to make the source material fit as a stage play.
“The Bodyguard,” playing at Starlight Theatre, is both of these things — an adaptation of the 1992 movie and a collection of Whitney Houston hits — and it plays like a Houston tribute concert awkwardly strapped to a story that doesn’t quite come together.
Rachel Marron, played by actress/recording artist Deborah Cox, is a superstar singer nominated for an Academy Award. When a stalker starts pursuing her, her team hires Frank Farmer, a former Secret Service agent, to protect her.
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Rachel initially chafes at Frank’s attempts to constrain her social and professional engagements, but the two eventually bond and fall in love. Meanwhile, the situation with the stalker escalates and comes to a head the night of the Oscars.
Cox and Judson Mills, who plays Frank, are well-cast. Cox ably performs Houston’s songs, with a voice slightly lower in register. She is most in her element during these concert-within-a-play performances.
The scenes in between the music numbers are less successful. The dialogue comes off as actors reciting lines, not real characters living life. The blocking feels stiff. In almost every scene characters talk to each other from static positions on stage, rather than moving around and breathing some energy into the scene.
The whole story, in fact, lacks a sense of movement. The pacing feels disjointed, and we don’t get to spend any time exploring the narrative or characters. Plot points are glimpsed and then quickly whisked away.
The show relies on heavy-handed lighting and sound cues to create a sense of menace around the stalker. Rather than build up the kind of tension and misdirection you’d expect from a thriller, we’re shown almost exactly what we’re going to get, all the way through, and there’s nothing surprising when we come to the climax.
The most successful scene closes act one. Frank takes Rachel to a karaoke bar, where he embarrasses himself and she gets to take a break from superstardom. Both characters start the scene in one place (at odds) and end in another (in love), which makes you wish the rest of the play could have worked like that.
Thankfully, the songs are there to do what they do. The hot dance numbers like “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and “I’m Every Woman” play like a true Whitney tribute, full of sequined costumes and background dancers. Softer ballads sung by Cox and Jasmin Richardson as Rachel’s sister Nicki also shine with quiet understatement.
But it may be telling that the most exciting number was the encore after the curtain call. Perhaps a concert was all anybody really needed.
“The Bodyguard” continues at Starlight Theatre through Sunday, Aug. 3. Tickets, $14-$162, are available at kcstarlight.com or by calling 816-363-7827.