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BWW Review: Garden Theatre's THE BODYGUARD Is Whitney-Worthy and One-Ups the Movie

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The show's regional premiere proves Central Florida has Houston-force talent.

BWW Review: Garden Theatre's THE BODYGUARD Is Whitney-Worthy and One-Ups the Movie

"THE BODYGUARD on stage sounds fun," I thought, "but is there really anybody in Winter Garden who can handle Whitney Houston songs for two whole hours?"

It turns out there are at least two people up to the task, and The Garden's got them both. This historic stage is home to Central Florida's regional premiere of THE BODYGUARD, a 2012 musical adapted from Houston's hit 1992 romantic thriller. The movie earned thumbs down all around from critics back then, but the musical is held in higher esteem, and for good reason.

At the Garden, it's local vocal phenom Virginia Roebuck who fills Houston's shoes as Rachel "Queen of the Night" Marron, a Houston-like pop star turned actress whose latest blockbuster brings both an Oscar nomination and a death threat from her psycho stalker. Enter Frank Farmer (played by John Andrew), an elite security specialist who reluctantly puts his life on the line to protect Rachel and her son, Fletcher (Omari Pernell). The higher her star rises, the more dire the danger... but Rachel soon finds herself wanting Frank for more than protection.

You may recall that in the movie, Rachel has a sister, Nicki. Or, just as likely, you might not recall at all. But no one will forget her role in the stage show, where it's beefed up, modified, and assigned some of Houston's heaviest hitters. That means producers have to double the diva. Enter Lillie Eliza Thomas, fresh off her run in Orlando Shakes' tour-caliber Little Shop and, before that, a still-memorable turn in the Garden's own Hello, Dolly! Her voice is fully Whitney-worthy, and just as importantly, she imbues Nicki with a tortured-but-sweet blend of yearning and regret that the movie couldn't quite master. When she sets her eyes on her sister's man and sings of forbidden flirtation in "Saving All My Love for You," it's not just an "American Idol" number - it's a character piece. And that's exactly why THE BODYGUARD works so well on stage.

"Saving All My Love for You," you ask? Good catch. That wasn't one of the thirteen tracks that made The Bodyguard the best-selling soundtrack of all time. The stage musical borrows eagerly from the rest of Houston's catalogue too - as early as "How Will I Know" and as recent as "Million Dollar Bill." Naturally, that kind of cash-cowing sounds like a surefire disaster, but THE BODYGUARD is the rare jukebox musical to put its songbook grab bag in service of the story. Remarkably, there's hardly a number here that doesn't feel like it was written for the character in the moment. Even lyrically questionable selections like "Greatest Love of All" work when situated in the backstage nature of the narrative. It doesn't hurt that Houston built her career with ballads big on emotion and romance, a subgenre well suited to the stage.

Roebuck is intent on doing those songs justice while also making them her own. In the lead role, she strikes just the right balance of proving she can punch a note like Whitney did but sometimes choosing not to, preferring a softer lyrical interpretation that distinguishes her performance from impersonation.

At intermission, patrons pondered whose voice fit Whit better: Roebuck or Thomas. Absolutely no one could decide.

Roebuck's Rachel is more likeable than the movie's, and that matters too. This "Queen of the Night" is less of a stuck-up superstar, easier to care about and root for.

BWW Review: Garden Theatre's THE BODYGUARD Is Whitney-Worthy and One-Ups the Movie

In her program notes, director Sara Catherine Barnes writes: "Superficially, The Bodyguard is about a woman needing protection from a man. But in reality, it is the story of a mother learning to trust someone enough that she can begin to slough off her armor and break down her walls..."

That's astute. It evidences a level of contemplation that has perhaps been denied The Bodyguard by critics at large, and I don't doubt that Barnes's exacting understanding of this story at its core is critical to its success on the Garden's stage.

Of course, not all the changes made from screen to stage work so well. The characters use iPads and iPhones, for some reason, but otherwise live in a world that looks, feels, and functions like 1992. There are no stars on the order of Whitney Houston or Rachel Marron in today's fractured media landscape, where a Platinum record is a pipe dream for even the biggest names in the biz, nor would songs that sound like this make their way to radio. So why move the story forward in time?

Happily, Cliff Price's nostalgic set design and Kat Henwood's screen-inspired costuming make it easy to imagine that everything is unfolding when it should. Frankly, we could all use a night in the 90s. I was thrilled that my Friday started with the 30th Anniversary release of Amy Grant's Heart in Motion and ended with "I Wanna Dance with Somebody." They don't make 'em like they used to. If you feel that way too, you'll be delighted by the 90s hit parade that plays throughout the theatre while waiting for the show to begin. (On opening night, that wait lasted a while, as minor technical fumbles forced a restart of the show. A few more run-throughs should cure those ills. Besides, no one in the audience seemed to mind.)

BWW Review: Garden Theatre's THE BODYGUARD Is Whitney-Worthy and One-Ups the Movie

Mind you, The Bodyguard isn't a one- or two-woman show. Roebuck and Thomas have strong support from a delightfully funny Darren Escarcha Cajipo (infinitely more fun than the movie's Sy Spector, publicist to the stars) and an empathetic Michael Morman in the role of Rachel's manager, Bill Devaney. And John Andrew is a perfect fit for the title part - confident, tall, stoic, and heroic.

It's clear right away the ensemble includes several real-deal professional dancers. Jackson Lee, Dakota Hemberger, Carlos Diaz, Javian DePalma, Logan Lopez, and Justin Baret are believable as a diva's dance troupe. Meanwhile, Janiece Deveaux, Sarah Beth Ganey, and Valerie Torres-Rosario entertain as backup singers and occasional karaoke girl group, with Ganey getting the biggest laughs of the night.

Dennis Pisarz is effectively foreboding as the mostly-silent Stalker, though I wish the show's book didn't choose to reveal his face early in Act One. (The movie made him a largely offscreen menace, to greater effect.)

Speaking of The Stalker - Barnes and Price, along with lighting designer George Jackson, sound designer Anthony Narciso, and music director Elaine Cotignola are to be congratulated for an overall aesthetic of danger and intrigue (something the Garden is reliably good at creating when the time is right).

But beyond the Whitney of it all, the performer who impressed me the most just might have been young Omari Pernell as fifth-grade Fletcher. "I believe the children are the future," Rachel sings. After witnessing Omari's spot-on comic timing and effortless naturalism on stage, I believe it too. The truth is that child actors on regional stages aren't always quite this good.

There's a lot to love about THE BODYGUARD at The Garden, but maybe most of all is the chance to get a little taste of what Whitney live on stage must have felt like - a first for Central Florida since her 1991 tour stop in Orlando. When Roebuck hits the big "AND I" in the song everyone is waiting for, it's a reminder of what we lost when that legend left us too soon... and of the incredible talents we have here at home too. This is "one moment in time" you don't want to miss.

BWW Review: Garden Theatre's THE BODYGUARD Is Whitney-Worthy and One-Ups the Movie

THE BODYGUARD runs through August 1st and tickets are available through the Garden. Socially distanced seating is limited and an array of COVID precautions are in effect. Audience members must wear face masks, while performers now don clear, barely-visible mouth shields that allow audiences to better hear dialogue and see full expressions. It's the most normal-feeling pandemic-era theatrical experience in this venue yet.


What did you think of THE BODYGUARD at Garden Theatre? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.

Photos by Steven Miller Photography, courtesy of Garden Theatre


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