by Kathryn Kitt
There is something truly magical going on in Milburn, NJ. Opening last night and through to January 1st, 2017, Deborah Cox is giving a truly star-making performance in The Bodyguard, the Musical at Paper Mill Playhouse. I have never been to Paper Mill Playhouse before, and I am now going to make it a priority to experience their season. The production values are quite sophisticated, transforming the stage into a display of show-stopping musical numbers and intimate set designs highlighting touching family scenarios.
Deborah Cox, early in her career, started out in the same vocal category as Whitney Houston, even being discovered by Clive Davis and offered a record contract through his label. She has a powerful voice, but I never felt like she was given the right songs to really break out of Ms. Houston’s huge shadow. It took the recent Lifetime movie of Whitney Houston, herself, in which Ms. Cox dubbed the vocals that got my complete attention. When I found out that she would be playing Ms. Houston’s iconic role of Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard, the Musical, I could not think of a better fit and looked forward to seeing her command the stage.
Thankfully, Ms. Cox delivers and then some. Blowing the roof off right at the start of the show, performing “The Queen of the Night” – complete with metallic costuming, backup dancers and pyrotechnics, Ms. Cox arrives! From there, the show sets itself up, alternating with the exposition of Frank Farmer, played by Judson Mills, who is hired as the Bodyguard to protect Rachel from a creepy stalker. Along the way, they fall in love, yet live in different worlds.
When the movie premiered around 1992, it was a showcase for Whitney Houston in her acting debut, highlighting her larger than life persona. Her rendition of “I Will Always Love You” escalated to the top of the charts and the soundtrack became the highest grossing in history. It seemed like it was a shoe in to become a stage musical.
The show is pretty faithful to the movie, with an adaptation by Alexander Dinelaris to give it more of a contemporary feel, like iPhones, Social Media and “going viral.” Plus adding in Ms. Houston’s other hits songs from her repertoire makes the show a jukebox musical for diehard Houston fans. The songs were nicely interpolated into the story and gave some of the secondary characters moments to shine. Jasmin Richardson, as Rachel’s sister Nicki Marron, had a much beefier role than the movie and her duet of “Run to You” with Ms. Cox was quite moving. That song was my favorite from the movie, so I was quite pleased to hear it given a more fleshed out arrangement, including some impressive harmonies. Both Ms. Cox and Ms. Richardson’s voices blend beautifully together and it would be great to have a recording of this!
The Bodyguard, the Musical, gives the audience what it wants. Dazzling costumes by Tim Hatley, dazzling choreography by Karen Bruce and seamless staging by Thea Sharrock. The singing and ensemble numbers are nicely balanced, thanks to Mike Dixon’s arrangements and Chris Egan’s orchestrations. Matthew Smedal conducted the band and it felt like being at a rock concert, especially during “I’m Every Woman.”
Ms. Cox and Mr. Mills have great chemistry, and it is nice to see the role of Frank Farmer have a little more humor than Kevin Coster in the movie. The Karaoke scene, which is the scene of Frank and Rachel’s date, could have easily been played strictly for laughs, but it ultimately becomes the heart of the whole show.
Ultimately, it cannot be denied that Ms. Cox is a true star in the most literal sense. Whether strutting with sass and singing with vocal technique – one minute a deep and rich support able to mix to the high notes in some of the most difficult songs. Without giving anything away, you must stay until the end, when Ms. Cox is in Diva mode one hundred percent! Hers is a jaw dropping performance that should not be missed and I (and my 10 year old daughter) are already planning a second trip!
North American premiere of the musical based on the Lawrence Kasdan film, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through Jan. 1.
Schedule: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 1:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets start at $32 973-376-4343 or www.papermill.org