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BWW Review: Deborah Cox Dazzles Nashville Audiences in THE BODYGUARD

BWW Review: Deborah Cox Dazzles Nashville Audiences in THE BODYGUARD

Deborah Cox, the Grammy Award-nominated R&B and pop music star now headlining the national tour of The Bodyguard - the stage musical based upon the 1992 film - proves herself to be every inch the star. From the very first moment she appears onstage, clad in Tim Hatley's eye-popping costume as "Queen of the Night," Cox carries with her that unmistakable, but hard to define, quality that sets her apart from mere mortals.

Star quality is essential for a show like The Bodyguard that is so dependent upon its leading lady to give it the dazzling attributes that contemporary audiences clamor for and it is Cox's performance of more than a dozen Whitney Houston songs that comprise the show's score that guarantees the audience will leap to their feet in frenzied applause at curtain, rewarding her and the accompanying entourage of actors, singers and dancers who have powered through the intervening two hours with energy, verve and a whole lot of sexual heat.

It sure ain't the book.

The musical's book, based on the original screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and updated by Alexander Dinelaris, is rather simplistic - there's little, if any, character development, resulting in a one-dimensional, written by rote script - as it tells the story of music superstar Rachel Marron who, on the strength of a new album and an Oscar nomination for her first film, is launching yet another tour to give her millions of loyal fans exactly what they've been expecting. Dinelaris' book ensures that Cox, whose career trajectory makes her an ideal choice for the leading role, does most of the heavy lifting (she's model thin and gorgeous, so all those hunky dancing boys lifting her up and carrying her around in the show's sensational musical numbers - choreographer Karen Bruce has created some terrific dance moves that rivet your attention to her amazingly talented cadre of performers - don't have to shoulder that much weight, after all) throughout the plot as she attempts to show Rachel's dramatic arc that moves from point A to point B with a matter-of-fact resoluteness that doesn't offer a great deal of shading or dramatic portent to the show.

BWW Review: Deborah Cox Dazzles Nashville Audiences in THE BODYGUARD
Deborah Cox and Judson Mills

It becomes apparent early on that Rachel is the target of a crazed fan, a stalker (the strikingly gorgeous and menacing Jorge Paniagua) who manages to get alarmingly close to her and whose increasingly disturbing threats are a major cause of concern for her entourage. To keep Rachel safe - and to give the show both its name and a plot - her manager reaches out to Frank Farmer, a security expert and bodyguard who at first seems reluctant to take on the task of protecting a celebrity. Played with stolid efficiency, rugged good looks and requisite charm despite his rock-solid devotion to duty, by veteran TV actor Judson Mills, Frank immediately clashes with his new charge and the stage is set for what seems to be a fated attraction between the two.

The assembled star power of Cox and the combustible elements of the onstage relationship of Frank and Rachel are certainly noteworthy, but it might be Bruce's choreography and her team of dancers who, in retrospect, seems to be the real wattage to the production. Fast-moving and intricate, Bruce's numbers are electric and invigorating, adding a very genuine rock concert sensibility to the show, while the dancers' gravity-defying moves, exceptional skills - and stunning good looks - leave you gasping for air.

BWW Review: Deborah Cox Dazzles Nashville Audiences in THE BODYGUARDOpening night at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall was a glittering, seemingly momentous, occasion: the auditorium was packed with fans, a mixture of Cox's followers, Whitney Houston devotees and those people who simply loved the original film that starred Houston and Kevin Costner. The shortcomings of Dinelaris' book was of little concern to them as they left the theater Tuesday night with what they came for: even more reason to idolize the objects of their adoration.

Make no mistake about, Cox is phenomenal and her stage presence is palpable throughout the show, but the role of Rachel Marron doesn't offer much of a challenge to her as an actress, relying instead upon her inherent star-power to ingratiate herself to the audience. She's lovely, moves well, sings the songs with conviction and heart, she is winningly engaging, and there is a very real connection to her audience that cannot be denied. If only Dinelaris had given her more to work with than the barely two-dimensional character he has given her.

Audiences not really knowing what to expect should be forewarned, however: this isn't a tribute to Whitney Houston or her performance in the film of The Bodyguard. Rather, this is a new musical based on that film that uses Houston's song catalog to give the show its voice. Cox and the rest of the cast perform those songs with their own estimable talents, giving each number a fresh rendering that will help longtime fans recall the first time they heard each one, but this isn't some tribute concert - the music is brought to life with a sense of the here and now rather than as museum pieces, if you will.

The same can be said for Mills, who is given the necessary hero-like set-up and status and asked to create an accessible character with whom the people out in the dark can identify. He succeeds, almost in spite of the limits of the script, and he and Cox are able to whip up enough chemistry to make their scenes together plausible, if not necessarily inspiring.

BWW Review: Deborah Cox Dazzles Nashville Audiences in THE BODYGUARD
Jasmin Richardson and Deborah Cox

As might be expected, supporting characters are given rather short shrift, what with the focus being sharply upon Rachel and Frank, but Jasmin Richardson makes the most of her time in the spotlight to create a credible - and altogether memorable - version of Rachel's older sister Nicki. Richardson's powerhouse vocals are an almost unexpected pleasure, obviously a portent of what's ahead in this talented young woman's career.

Douglas Baldeo makes his mark as Rachel's son, Fletcher, putting his own musical chops on display, while Alex Corrado, Charles Gray, Jarid Faubel and Jonathan Hadley provide strong support as various members of Team Rachel.

Hatley's set and costume design make for a compelling visual design aesthetic for the show (update from its original early 1990s setting to the present) and Mark Henderson's lighting design adds yet another gorgeous element to the production.

The Bodyguard. Based on the Warner Bros. film. Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan. Book by Alexander Dinelaris. Directed by Thea Sharrock. Choreographed by Karen Bruce. Production Musical Supervisor and Vocal Arrangements by Mike Dixon. Presented by Michael Harrison, David Ian and Nederlander Productions, Inc. At Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall, Nashville. Through March 26. For details, go to Running time: 2 hours (with one 20-minute intermission).

photos by Joan Marcus

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