The Price We Pay | “The Bodyguard” @ Pantages

The Bodyguard (Pantages)Oh, the prices we pay to get tickets to Hamilton. For some, it is overpriced tickets and waiting in long lines, physically or virtually. For Hollywood Pantages (FB) Season Subscribers, it was The Bodyguard, which we saw last night.

The Bodyguard is ostensibly a transfer to the legit musical stage of the movie The Bodyguard from 1992, a movie that received a rating of 6.2/10 on Yelp, and which starred Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston (or, as I view it in my worldview, the 1992 movie was a premake of the stage show, because the stage show always comes first). It also featured a number of Whitney Houston songs. You can just imagine the movie executives going, “Gee, we could make a great Whitney Houston tribute musical out of this.” However, the starting point was a movie with very mixed reception — 32% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and 64% from the audience — and that doesn’t make a good basis for a musical.  Especially one that doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up.

So what makes a good musical? If we go back to the formula established by Rodgers and Hammerstein, you have musical movements that propel and move the story forward. When one looks that movies that have moved from screen to stage, rarely does the original soundtrack music make the transfer. Look at Sister Act or High Fidelity or most you can think of. The popular music soundtrack is replaced by something similar that serves the story better, with perhaps the exception of one or two best-known songs (The Wedding Singer is a good example of that).

So, perhaps this is a jukebox musical — a musical designed to showcase the music of a particular artist. After all, we need a good Whitney Houston musical. Jukebox musicals take three forms: pure retrospective concerts (think Smokey Joe’s Cafe); new stories crafted around an existing catalog where the catalog songs move the story forward (think All Shook Up or Mamma Mia); or books crafted to tell the history of the artist, using the catalog songs as representative samples along the line of the bio story (think Jersey Boys or Ain’t Misbehavin’).

The major fundamental problem with The Bodyguard — the problem that doomed it to be a West-End Tour, and will kill it if it makes it to Broadway — is that it is neither fish nor fowl (although, the story smells a bit fishy and may be foul). By that I mean that this clearly isn’t a musical where the music propels the story forward at all. There are no real book related songs; there are numerous pure concert moments. But it isn’t a good jukebox musical either — it isn’t a pure concert, it isn’t a fake story crafted to use the songs of the catalog right, nor does it tell the story of the artist. It is an attempt to move a movie to the stage stuffing it full of the catalog of one pop star’s songs, with an ill-fitting book that barely provides the excuse to move from song to song. It could have been a very successful (OK, moderately successful) concert and dance show, but the producers didn’t let it go there.

So, besides that Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the play?

Setting aside the problems of this musical as a musical, the book remained weak. Admittedly, there were some very cute scenes in the book. The karaoke scene in Act I was a hoot, well performed and funny. A few other scenes had funny moments here and there. But you never really got to know the characters and their relationships. The bad guy? His character was “The Stalker”. The male love interest had not a single song telling you his feelings.  You had no idea about the motivations of the stalker other than what the police told you.  You didn’t feel invested in these characters; the book seemed to be there solely so they could tie it to the movie, and move from song to song.

Now, admittedly, that’s what we had with An American in Paris, with a very light storyline, used as an excuse for dance and song. So why did that work, and this doesn’t. Well, part of the problem is that it didn’t work with An American in Paris — it really was a dance show clothed in a weak book, and it didn’t have a long Broadway run even though it toured. But the movie it was based on was the same way, and there was an attempt to work the songs into the story. Further, the characters were less caricatures than they were here. So, essentially, both were flawed.

Um, so Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the performance?

Sheer performance, that’s where this cast excelled — at least the singers and dancers. In the lead position as Rachel Marron was Deborah Cox (FB). Not being a Whitney Houston expert, I can’t really assess whether she successfully channed Ms. Houston. I do know that she sang and danced well, and seemed reasonable in her scenes with the other players (in particular, the cabin scene). Playing off her as her bodyguard was Judson Mills (FB) as Frank Farmer. It is telling that his Playbill bio is his IMDB bio, with no real musical credits. His role involves neither singing (he didn’t really have one sole solo song) or dancing in a heavily singing and dancing musical (even in the final dance montage, he doesn’t sing or dance). Essentially, his performance, like the character he was playing, was relatively wooden — only showing sparks of life not when interacting with his love interest, but when interacting with the young kid in the cast.

Rounding out the Merron family was Jasmin Richardson (FB) as Nikki Marron and Douglas Baldeo (FB) as Fletcher (alternating with Kevelin B. Jones III (FB)). Both were powerhouse performers — great singers, great dancers, and as good a performance as this show allows. Baldeo was particularly remarkable in the closing montage.

The other main named characters — at least those who weren’t part of the ensemble as well — were eminently forgettable. There characters were lightly drawn and tended to disappear in the background. Notable here was “The Stalker” (Jorge Paniagua (FB)) , whose sole role was to look menacing in blackouts, and had perhaps 4 lines. Others in similar small roles were: Charles Gray (FB) [Bill Devaney], Alex Corrado (FB) [Tony Scibelli]; Jonathan Hadley (FB) [Sy Spector]; and Jarid Faubel [Ray Court].

What did shine? The ensemble: Brendon Chan (FB), Megan Elyse Fulmer (FB) [+College Girl], Alejandra Matos (FB), DeQuina Moore (FB) [+Backup Vocalist, +College Girl, u/s Nicki / Rachel Marron], Bradford Rahmlow (FB) [+Assassin, +Rory, u/s Tony Scibelli, u/s Ray Court], Benjamin Rivera (FB) [+Dance Captain, u/s Stalker],  Matthew Schmidt (FB) [+Klingman, +Douglas, +DJ, +Jimmy, +Stage Manager, +Oscar Host, u/s Bill Devaney, u/s The Stalker, U/s Sy Spector, u/s Ray Court], Jaquez André Sims (FB) [u/s Bill Devaney, u/s Tony Scibelli], Nicole Spencer (FB), and Naomi C. Walley (FB) [+College Girl, u/s Rachel / Nicki Marron]. [Swings were Willie Dee (FB), Sean Rozanski (FB) [+Fight Captain], Maria Cristina Slye (FB), and Lauren Tanner (FB)]. The ensemble shone in the background in the few book scenes, silently playing characters. They shone during the main dance numbers and especially during the dance reminx finale. They provided wonderful facial expressions and reaction shots. They were just great.

The production was directed, somewhat mechanically, by Thea Sharrock, using a book by Alexander Dinelaris (FB) that adapted the Warner Brothers (FB) film that had a screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan. Frank Thompson (FB) was the associate director.  You want music and lyrics credit — they were all songs made famous by Whitney Houston (FB), although she didn’t write them. To me, the two most notable songs were also notable covers: “I Will Always Love You“, originally written and performed by Dolly Parton (FB) in 1974; and “The Greatest Love Of All“, written by composers Michael Masser (music) and Linda Creed (lyrics) (no, not the Marron sisters as portrayed in the Musical), originally written and recorded by George Benson (FB) to be the main theme of the 1977 film The Greatest, a biopic of the boxer Muhammad Ali (which I actually have on LP).

Although the direction was weak and didn’t improve the weak book, the dance was strong. Credit here goes to choreographer Karen Bruce (FB) and Assistant Choreographer Amy Thornton (FB), assisted by Dance Captain Benjamin Rivera (FB). I had a cousin with me who is more into the vernacular of modern concerts and such, and she indicated the dance was extremely strong. Perhaps “lit” was the term she used.

By the way, for those attempting to look up credits (as I have), note that much of the creative team has a UK / West End pedigree, not Broadway. This musical is not a Broadway musical — yet. It started in London’s West End, toured the UK, and is now touring the US hoping for Broadway. Telling is the fact that tour has not been authorized by the estate of Whitney Houston. For good reason? Perhaps.

The orchestra for the show was strong, under the direction of Matthew Smedal (FB), who we’ve seen a number of times on stages ranging from Cabrillo to national tours. He led an orchestra consisting of: Wendell Vaughn/FB [Associate Music Director / Keys], Owen Broder (FB) [Woodwinds], David D. Torres (FB) [Trumpet], Michael Karcher (FB) [Guitar], Ralph Agresta (FB) [Guitar], John Toney (FB) [Bass], Joe McCarthy (FB) [Drums], plus local orchestra members John Yoakum (FB) [Clarinet, Flute, Tenor Sax, EWI], Wayne Bergeron (FB) [Trumpet / Flugelhorn], Paul Viapiano (FB) [Guitar 2 / Acoustic Guitar / Electric Guitar], and William Malpede (FB) [Keyboard Sub]. Other orchestra credits: Talitha Fehr (FB) / TL Music International [Music Coordinator]; Brian Miller [Orchestra Contractor], Mike Dixon [Production Music Supervisor, Vocal Arrangements], Chris Egan (FB) [Orchestrations, Additional Music], and Richard Beadle [Music Supervisor]. The Orchestra was also hidden not in the orchestra pit, but under the stage, to make space for the hydraulic lift used for one scene. This is notable solely for the fact that the screens showing the conductor to the actors was a bit bright, distracting the audience.

Finally, the remaining production and creative credits. The scenic design by Tim Hatley made use of these odd framing devices with integrated lighting that shrunk or expanded the visual stage. They worked, but were also quite distracting at times. The set design worked better during the concert numbers, where it combined with Mark Henderson‘s lighting design to create a real concert atmosphere. Note: for those with problems with strobes or lights shining in your face, this isn’t the concert for you. There is heavy use of movers and LEDs aimed at the audience. This also isn’t a good show for the faint of heart: the sound design of Richard Brooker has a number of startling moments with gunshots and the like. Other than that, the sound was generally crisp and clear — unusual for the Pantages. Tim Hatley also designed the costumes (Leon Dobkowski (FB) was the associate costume designer for the US tour), working with hair, wigs, and makeup of Campbell Young Associates. They seemed era-appropriate for me; I noticed no glaring problems and they were suitably sparkly. The video designs of Duncan McLean worked well, although at times they seemed more movie-like than a stage production. Rounding out the production credits: Paul Hardt (FB) [Casting Director]; Jim Lanahan / Troika Entertainment (FB) [General Manager]; Melissa Chacón [Production Stage Manager]; Richard A. Leigh [Stage Manager]; Stacy N. Taylor [Assistant Stage Manager].

The Bodyguard – The Musical continues at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) until May 21. Tickets are available through the Pantages website. Discount tickets are available through Goldstar.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: Next weekend takes us to a dance performance that proudly admits it is a dance show (unlike our past two Pantages musicals): Martha Graham Dance and American Music at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). The third weekend of May brings the last show of the Actors Co-op (FB) season, Lucky Stiff, at Actors Co-op (FB). May concludes with Hello Again at the Chromolume Theatre (FB), and possibly Five Guys Named Moe at Ebony Repertory Theatre (FB), or perhaps the Simi Valley Cajun and Blues Festival (FB), as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy is playing.

As for June? Three words: Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). I’m working on the schedule for that now. The shows of interest are as follows — however, the total for tickets is over $700, which is way too high. Expect this list to be pared down. Not all of these are currently in our schedule (¤ unscheduled as of now). If you know of any discounts for these shows, or have recommendations / disrecommendations, please let us know.

July brings us back to normal theatre (° = pending confirmation). We start with The Voysey Inheritance° at Actors Co-op (FB) the first weekend. The second weekend is currently open. The third weekend brings Peter Pan at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) and Ruthie and Naomi° at  Actors Co-op (FB). The fourth weekend of July has a hold for Motown/Miracle | Harlem/Renaissance from Muse/ique (FB). The last weekend of July brings The Last 5 Years° at Actors Co-op (FB).  August will (hopefully) start with Brian Setzer° at the Hollywood Bowl (FB) on August 2, followed by The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on the weekend. The second weekend of August? What makes sitting through The Bodyguard worth it: Hamilton at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). I’m still scheduling September, but so far we have The 39 Steps° at Actors Co-op (FB) and Pacific Overtures at Chromolume Theatre (FB). More as the schedule fleshes out, of course, but we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018 already!

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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