Review: The Bodyguard at Sunderland Empire
The Bodyguard – The Musical is based on the Warner Brothers film from 1992 which starred Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. The story concerns a former Secret Service Agent, Frank Farmer who undertakes to protect the life of a rather ungrateful diva Rachel Marron whose life has been threatened by a stalker. At first resistant to his interference, Rachel gradually warms to the no nonsense Frank and love inevitably blossoms between the two of them. The action is interspersed by the immense back catalogue of Whitney Houston tracks. It is something of a stretch to call this a musical – jukebox musical at best but really more of a love in to Whitney Houston songs with a story vaguely wrapped around them. That being said it is a thoroughly enjoyable evening at the theatre and the increasingly common extra finale is an absolute joy.
Melody Thornton of The Pussycat Dolls takes on the unenviable role of Rachel Marron and her vocals are amazing – she really comes into her own at the end of the production with superb renditions of ‘One Moment in Time’ and the Dolly Parton penned ‘I Will Always Love You’ for which the film is arguably most famous. She commands the stage effortlessly and while not quite as feisty as the aforementioned Whitney Houston, she is eminently likeable and the bond with her on stage son, Fletcher, is nothing short of adorable.
Frank Farmer is played by Ayden Callaghan and it is very clear from the outset why this versatile actor was cast by Beth Eden and Debbie O’Brien because at first glance you could easily mistake him for the superstar that is or at least was Kevin Costner at the time of the original film’s release. Ayden provides a competent, yet understated performance as the beleaguered former Secret Service agent and his interaction with all the other members of the relatively small cast is sincere and believable.
While Mr Costner may have been a huge name back in the day, this musical is all about the ladies and the two sisters really give outstanding performances. Rachel’s sister Nicki Marron is played by Emily-Mae, in this version herself a more than competent singer and performer somewhat eclipsed by her much more famous sister. Emily-Mae is mesmerising in this role and sings her heart out with a great deal of feeling that is sure to soften even the hardest of hearts.
For fans of the film, there are some scenes which are carefully recreated such as the scene in which Rachel is mobbed on stage and it is cleverly done using a mixture of live action and slow motion. I was a little disappointed that the rather fractious relationship between new bodyguard, Frank and the incumbent Tony Scibelli, played by Graham Elwell is left largely in the background of the narrative in this musical adaptation.
The set is very effective, if a little bare on occasions. There is a heavy reliance on projections, especially in the first half which can be distracting. There is a lot of use of curtains covering areas of the stage not being used and masking changes. This is in part very effective but can also be a little annoying. That said, the set for Frank’s cabin beside the lake is as opulent as they come and the lighting design for the Oscars ceremony is as simple as it is glorious. Speaking of the lighting, designed by Mark Henderson, it is understated and at others a veritable kaleidoscope of colour but in all cases is sublime. At the performance I attended, there appeared to have been a technical issue with the automated spotting system which caused some anomalies in the first half but it was also very obvious that much time, care and love has been expended on a visually aesthetic lighting plot designed to complement the action and titillate the senses. The use of a false proscenium arch and LED lights is particularly effective.
The rest of the cast all play their part, I particularly liked James Groom in the role of the embattled tour manager, Sy Spector who is furnished with some delightful one-liners. The ensemble work incredibly hard in this production playing multiple minor characters and acting as Rachel Marron’s dancers and backing singers performing some high octane and thoroughly enjoyable dance routines.
The story itself is not quite how I remember it from the film but I will not go too deeply into that for fear of spoilers. There is plenty of humour in this production which is often subtle and occasionally quite hilarious – do watch out for the karaoke scene which comes towards the end of the first half. There are a couple of points in the proceedings when I nearly jumped out of my seat – so be warned about that too.
If you are looking for clever dialogue and carefully crafted songs and lyrics in the style of, for example, Stephen Sondheim, then this musical is probably not for you. If however you like the film on which this is based, you adore Whitney Houston or you just fancy a night of bubblegum entertainment with a few songs from the 80’s and early 90’s then this production will be right up your street. I thoroughly enjoyed it and came out with a smile on my face – and for that one moment in time – is exactly what I needed.
THE BODYGUARD will hit the Sunderland Empire from Monday13 – Saturday 18 February 2023. Tickets priced from just £13* are available from the Ticket Centre on 0844 871 3022* or online at www.ATGtickets.com/sunderland
*A £3.65 transaction fee applies to telephone and online bookings. Calls cost up to 7p per minute plus your standard network charge.
Review by Stephen Stokoe (Gifted Tickets)
Photography: Matt Crockett