It’s not a bad idea to try to make a jukebox musical out of Whitney Houston’s hits.
And it’s understandable that someone would want to make a stage version of the hugely popular 1992 movie “The Bodyguard,” which co-starred Houston and Kevin Costner and spawned a megahit soundtrack album (featuring Houston’s biggest hit ever, “I Will Always Love You”).
But making a musical that both tells the story of “The Bodyguard” while cramming in Houston’s songs from that movie PLUS a dozen other Houston hits? That’s not a good idea at all.
Or, at least, that’s what I thought after watching “The Bodyguard,” which debuted in London in 2012 and is currently at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, in its U.S. premiere, before setting off on a North American tour next year.
Let me say, first of all, that the song and dance numbers are perfectly enjoyable in their own right. Deborah Cox and Jasmin Richardson, who do most of the singing, are first-rate vocalists, and evoke Houston without being carbon copies of her. (Cox plays the Houston character, pop diva Rachel Marron, and Richardson handles the role of Rachel’s doormat sister, Nicki).
But this production doesn’t offer much beyond the music.
This “Bodyguard” doesn’t work as a love story, since Rachel and her straight-arrow bodyguard Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) never seem to have much of a connection. Their affair comes out of nowhere, briefly intensifies, and then dissolves just as quickly.
This “Bodyguard” also doesn’t work as a thriller, since Frank’s a bodyguard, not a detective. It’s not his job to find Rachel’s potentially violent stalker, it’s his job to protect her when she is in danger.
Also, some elements of the story — which includes some significant changes from the story in the movie — simply make no sense. Frank, for instance, is supposed to be a super-talented, super-conscientious bodyguard, yet he constantly makes bad decisions, and Rachel and members of her family are constantly imperiled. (Even so, Rachel says one of the things she loves about him is that he makes her feel safe).
Moreover, many of the songs that weren’t in the “Bodyguard” movie are awkwardly crowbarred into the story. There is no problem with using the bubbly “How Will I Know” in a scene in which Rachel rehearses with her dancers, or having her croon the stately “One Moment in Time” during an Academy Awards ceremony. But “The Greatest Love of All” should be a show-stopper, and it isn’t here, since its theme of self-esteem doesn’t have anything to do with the story. And when Nicki sings the feverish “Saving All My Love for You” moments after developing her own romantic interest in Frank, it seems absurdly overblown.
It’s a clever touch to have Frank warble “I Will Always Love You,” reluctantly, in a karaoke bar, in the first act, before Cox belts it out in the second. And Douglas Baldeo was very dynamic as Rachel’s star-in-the-making son Fletcher in the show I saw (he alternates in the role with Kevelin B. Jones III). There was lots of energy in the dancing, throughout.
But ultimately, Rachel and Frank remain aloof mysteries, as does Rachel’s sullen stalker, played by Jorge Paniagua.
A musical like this should ideally take pre-existing elements (a popular movie’s story, a legendary singer’s hits) and end up being more than the sum of its parts. Not, as is the case here, less.
“The Bodyguard” is at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through Jan. 1. Visit papermill.org.