THE BODYGUARD: THE MUSICAL

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _THE ALEXANDRA.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _30th DEC.

December 4, 2023

images © Paul Coltas.

Note: TWE reviewed  ‘The Bodyguard The Musical’ earlier in its current tour. Given that this is the same touring production, what follows is a revised version of that same review, updated for its visit to the Alexandra Theatre, most notably with its updated casting in lead Emily Williams.

The term ‘star vehicle’ is bandied around perhaps a pinch too often in this digital age of insta-celebrity and influencer fandom.

Yet there’s little doubt that it is exactly what 1992’s The Bodyguard proved to be, with its art-imitating-life framing of the late, great Whitney Houston as a headline-grabbing pop-star in need of protection from a dangerous stalker, as she swirls her way through an album launch and Oscar nomination.

Its transplant from screen to stage is unsurprisingly effortless – the film’s titanic, record-breaking soundtrack did all of the leg-work then (courtesy of Houston’s powerhouse lungs), and continues, for the most part, to do so here. As with its cinematic predecessor, the central tale and formula of Bodyguard is predictable to the point of almost being rote; rich, entitled yet well-meaning megastar has gruff, handsome protector type thrust upon her, and the initial animosity and frostiness between the two eventually blossoms into a romance that will have everyone reaching for the hankies come the finale.

It doesn’t even attempt to break the mould or really flesh out too far beyond the blueprint of the film, but nor does it really need to. It’s accessible, effective and entertaining, pitched perfectly for the hen do and girls night out crowds (if you’ll forgive some over-generalisation). Director Thea Sharrock and design team Tim Hatley, Mark Henderson, Duncan McLean and Richard Brooker certainly put on a show – from pillars of flames erupting from the front of the stage to expansive projections and rapid edits selling the pop concert vibes (if slightly by way of The X Factor/Britain’s Got Talent), Bodyguard makes good on its Hollywood and pop concert trappings, even if there are some noticeable cut corners on the extravagance this time round. It even gets some punchy moments of shock and brief horror neatly tucked in throughout for good measure, too.

“A romance that comes across now a little formulaic, though it is undoubtedly what the vast majority of the audience will be there to see…”

But it is, first and foremost, a love story, and there’s no shaking that the raw, forbidden trespass of passion and profession between Houston and Kevin Costner felt a lot more daring back in the early 90s. It’s a romance that comes across now a little formulaic, though it is undoubtedly what the vast majority of the audience will be there to see (along with, naturally, a Whitney-esque belt or two).

It feels oddly dated elsewhere, too. See the clumsily regressive handling of its LGBT characters in particular – cookie cutter cliches of campy cattiness, for the most part.

 To put it plainly, we’ve seen it all before.

But, again, with The Bodyguard, that’s sort of the point.

So all eyes (and ears) tend to fall on appraising how good each individual production’s Rachel Marron is. The separation between character and actress in the film was practically non-existent, so it’s unsurprising that, outside of its West End debut (where musical theatre goddess Heather Headley first steered the ship), touring productions of Bodyguard have tried to inject some of that Whitney duality synergy by having ‘IRL’ pop-stars take on the central role. From Beverley Knight to Alexandra Burke, what has been fairly consistent is the calibre of vocal chops they’ve hung pretty much the entirety of the show on.

Earlier this year, this very same production landed somewhat tepidly, with ‘Pussycat Dolls’ star Melody Thornton offering up a choppy, inconsistent turn that occasionally shone, but mostly coasted. The show undoubtedly felt underpowered as a consequence. For these latter venues, New Zealand-born Emily Williams (of Australian Idol fame) steps into the limelight, leaving all eyes on whether she can inject some Houston-esque pizazz and vocals back into the show…

Thankfully, Williams proves herself a worthy ‘Rachel Marron’ from the outset. Blasting out the full-throated sass of ‘Queen of the Night’, Williams goes on to give an assured and confident turn that admirably never resorts to simply mimicking the late Whitney.

“Williams is an impressive, steady pair of hands (and lungs), and navigates a challenging role (and even more challenging sing) with aplomb…”

Whilst she still ends up lumbered with some of the show’s needlessly over-choreographed poppier moments, Williams is an impressive, steady pair of hands (and lungs), and navigates a challenging role (and even more challenging sing) with aplomb, tearing into major asks such as ‘One Moment in Time’ and, of course, the seminal, climactic ‘I Will Always Love You’.

It’s night and day from the show we reviewed earlier in the year; and a stark reminder of the importance of getting your lead right, particularly in a show such as this, that is quite literally engineered around them and their musical moments.

Around her, Ayden Callaghan is solid as the gruff, no-nonsense Frank. It’s a fairly thankless and still slightly under-written part, plastering blanket stoicism over any major development or depth, but Callaghan is a suitably brooding and handsome foil. He gives good deadpan, occasionally tiptoes into cheddar territory, and certainly offers up the physicality required for the role. The talented Emily-Mae, meanwhile, continues a long-running Bodyguard trend of having the role of Rachel’s sister Nicki threaten to steal the whole show from under her, with a delicate and soulful supporting turn.

It’s great to see a show find its footing once more after a wobbly start, as has been the case here with The Bodyguard. Sure, it’s consummate popcorn entertainment pushed through the mould of the musical: light, predictable, ‘poppy’ fun, but that only underlines the importance of getting your casting on point. As ever, it benefits immensely from having some of the best pop classics of the past few decades as its soundboard, and it looks and feels like a suitably shiny piece of theatre craft throughout.

If unpretentious nights of jukebox fun are your thing, then go for the tunes and the unapologetic, frothy entertainment factor of it all. Stay for some wonderful performances and occasionally showstopping vocals from the talented ladies portraying the Marron sisters in particular.

It may be a trifle outdated, with cookie cutter characters and a plot you can chart out a mile off, but come the curtain call, there’ll be few left in the auditorium not bopping along to Williams, and welcoming her as an all-new, elevatory Queen of the Night.

Williams injects new life into a formerly tepid outing with a confident, non-imitative lead turn. Solid vocals, splashes of spectacle and a cheesy blend of feel-good and poppy vim make for a revitalised production well worth checking out.

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