BWW Review: THE BODYGUARD Protects Toby's Superstar Reputation
On current offer at Toby's in Columbia is THE BODYGUARD, which is billed as "featuring the greatest hits of Whitney Houston," which is not deliberately misleading, as all artistic parties are properly credited: I inspect the programme and eventually recognize that 'hits of' is different to 'music of' or 'songs of,' as Whitney was not so much a writer. I imagine if you liked the movie, you'll love the live version. This is my first time to see it.
The seating around the stage floor is multi-tiered and snug-ish; prepare to be friendly. Dinner is served buffet style, with amusing show-themed names for some dishes. Toby's signature Spinach Funque is one of my favorites, but if you don't like spinach casserole, you're not likely to change your mind. The fish is very mild, roast beef is sliced to your preference, and dessert isn't cake OR ice cream, it's cake AND ice cream. Tonight's special drink, The Mayan, a Margarita-esque concoction, is a winner- it's refreshing and sharp, with just the right amount of tequila. I'm assured by my companion it is also wonderful without tequila. Throughout our meal, the dyed rim sugar begins to unfurl tendrils of green into the pale liquid surrounding the ice cubes.
There's much to like about this production, story aside. It's predictable, superficial and just barely passes the Bechdel-Wallace test. The script, however, is measurably better than the story, and the performance is even better than the script. Ross Scott Rawlings' accompanying mini-orchestra is flat-out terrific, and there are some extremely interesting tech things going on- more on them in a bit. Overall, a strong thumbs-up, with a writerly proviso. This is no surprise to my regular readers, assuming I have some.
THE BODYGUARD opens with a big song and dance number, the only one in the show which Houston had a hand in writing, and if that's a spoiler, you have my apologies. Ashley Johnson-Moore, playing our central protagonist Rachel Marron, has astounding stage charisma, a powerful set of pipes, and is a performance dynamo worthy of leading roles whatever she likes. With her on the dance floor is a mighty impressive Ensemble, some whom I've seen in lead roles at Toby's, and several new faces blend seamlessly in their Toby's debut. Choreographer Shalyce Hemby's arrangements have both sparkle and pizzaz, with dancers equal to the footwork. David Singleton's moves are particularly slick, and Brook Urquhart's strength and precision are always delightful.
Playing Rachel's sister Nicki is Samantha Deininger, who is extremely watchable, so I'm pulling for her to be our protagonist (I don't know the plot) as I don't much like Rachel - a deliberate book issue, assuredly- and completing the central family unit is one of three young boys, all with great smiles and high cuteness quotient. Tonight we see Chase Reaves, whose acting is confident and natural; he's very likeable as Fletcher, Rachel's son. At the other end of the spectrum is Justin Calhoun, who is quite chilling as the Stalker in a mostly silent role.
As the titular Bodyguard, Russell Sunday delivers a solid, nuanced performance. He has a deft touch with comedic moments, including a sequence in which he pretends he can't sing. Regulars David James, DeCarlo Raspberry, Jeffrey Shankle and David Bosley-Reynolds complete the cast in this male-heavy show. It's a credit to the teamwork and style of acting Toby's cultivates to observe lead-role actors appear in supporting or ensemble roles without a hint of upstaging.
Directors Mark Minnick and Toby Orenstein, with usual smooth in-the-round staging, provide a good view to all corners. Some especially dramatic action is elevated for visibility. The unseen orchestra, conducted by Music Director Ross Scott Rawlings, sounds splendid, and enhances dramatic moments, particularly Tony Neenan's work trumpet and Evander McLean's on percussion. Mark Smedley's Sound Design is understated and irreproachable. Costume designer Janine Sunday captures the early '90s' fashion vibe. Owing largely to a Scenic design which lends itself to vignettes and extraordinarily cinematic lighting- both by Designer David Hopkins- the production very much has an "at the movies" feel to it, with, of course, the more mannerly behavior of a live theatergoers audience.
Intermission, billed as 20 minutes, seems to run exactly long enough for everyone to use the restroom, even those with mobility issues. Kudos to Toby's for sensitivity on that matter.
Author Lawrence Kasdan's script for The Bodyguard was rejected 67 times before being purchased by Warner Brothers, ostensibly for Diana Ross and Steve McQueen. It was made nearly two decades later starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. The proliferation of jukebox musicals made the 2012 re-creation of the 1992 movie as a stage show very nearly a foregone conclusion. THE BODYGUARD, packed with pop music by a genuine superstar pop artist, adds a bunch more of Whitney Houston's finest to the ones featured in the movie. As a show, it's a lovely vehicle for talented people of color, and Toby's does better than many in the ongoing quest for representational inclusion. Hollywood could take a few notes.
THE BODYGUARD plays at Toby's through November 3, 2019. Up next is A CHRISTMAS STORY November 8th - January 5th, then KINKY BOOTS January 10th - March 7th, 2020.
Photo: Ashley Johnson-Moore and Ensemble in THE BODYGUARD; Photo Credit: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Toby's Dinner Theatre is in Columbia, Maryland, easily accessed from 29 Southbound, with plenty of free parking all around the building.
Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia
5900 Symphony Woods Road
Columbia, MD 21044
For additional information including pricing, buffet menu and directions, visit www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.
For tickets, phone the box office at 410-730-8311, 301-596-6161 or 1-800-88-TOBYS 10 am - 9 pm. Doors open at 6pm Tuesday through Saturday evenings, with dinner from 6:30-7:20 for an 8 pm showtime. Wednesday and Sunday Matinees, the buffet is 10:30-11:50 am for a 12:30 pm show. Sunday evening supper is at 5:30 pm, with a 7 pm showtime. The show runs about one and a half hours, including a 20 minute intermission.