The 1992 movie was a monster hit, but no one ever argued that the screenplay of “The Bodyguard” was its strong point. The most startling thing about the handsome but flaccid stage transfer is that what passed for a script is now even thinner, with characters reduced to over- or under-emoting ciphers. Heather Headley thrillingly knocks all Whitney Houston wannabes out of the ballpark, but whenever she launches into a Whitney cover, there’s tangible relief as audiences are released from the vapid movie-revamp into star-gazing.
The major problem is the show’s attempt to cover all bases. Adding a slew of Houston back-catalog songs would be fine if solely attempting a jukebox show. But the producers have chosen to shoehorn them into a filleted version of the screen story of bodyguard Frank (Lloyd Owen) who saves diva-in-peril Rachel (Headley), a tale that is, famously, a thriller, a genre reliant upon audiences being glued to the action. But with everything stopping for numbers, tension keeps evaporating.
With so many songs inserted, there is little time for Alexander Dinelaris’ book scenes, so everything has been oversimplified. The roles of stalker and hitman are now one and the same, but still all Mark Letheren gets to do is glower and deliver an anguished cry as he tears Rachel’s costume. Fletcher, Rachel’s 10-year-old son, now not threatened, becomes merely a cute addition.
In the movie, Kevin Costner got away with doing little but being staunchly implacable because he had close-ups in which to express thought and suppressed emotion. On stage, chiseled, laconic Owen either stands there looking stern or moves into helmer Thea Sharrock’s poorly staged action.
His character should be the active ingredient in all three of the major set-pieces: the riot in the nightclub where he saves Rachel and delivers the poster image of her in his arms, the attack in the cabin and the climactic Oscar save. But Sharrock badly bungles all three.
That nightclub scene merely presents Rachel singing, a little overcrowding on the podium on which she’s performing, followed by a couple of flashes of slo-mo fighting, and then he scoops her up in his arms. It’s neither frightening nor tense. Similarly, when Frank chases the perp into the woods, woefully unconvincing video footage of him running is projected across the cabin. And the scene at the Oscars, which should benefit from actually being live in a theater, goes for nothing. The hitman appears in a box, sends a laser light across the audience to his target and is then shot, again in seriously anti-climatic slo-mo.
The role of Nicki, the diva’s sister, has been beefed-up — Debbie Kurup sings up a storm with “Saving All My Love for You” and gives Headley a run for her money in their duets — but being asked to believe that both sisters fall fatally in love with Frank in less than a heartbeat feels preposterous. And with her character now so inconsistent, Rachel’s grief over Nicki’s death feels unearned.
The only moment of genuine warmth comes in the engaging if illogical new scene in which Frank takes a barely disguised Rachel to a karaoke bar (let’s not mention the implications for her safety). Having lost a bet with her, he’s forced to sing a number, and chooses, “I Will Always Love You” which, amusingly, he proceeds to massacre.
In her West End debut, Headley radiates star-quality but the script gives her little to do. She’s not even a bitch, merely a bit cross. But her Whitney impersonations raise up the hair on your neck. When she’s at full power, the show sparks back to life.
Mark Henderson’s rock-concert-style lighting and Tim Hatley’s highly effective sets together busily create a sense of movement, as if trying to hide the fact that there’s precious little that’s moving, in every sense, about the actual show. The fame of the title may lure an audience, but when the only time that the temperature really rises is in the final song — and, natch, the megamix — you’re left with the feeling that everyone would have a better time at a Heather Headley concert.