At the Cliffs Pavilion and on tour The Bodyguard The Musical will grip you and not let you go.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom The Bodyguard The Musical: Cliffs Pavilion, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, 23.5.2023. (JPr)

Ayden Callaghan (Frank Farmer) and Emily-Mae (Nicki Marron) © Paul Coltas

Repeating myself (yet again) it is another show at the Cliffs Pavilion and another musical based on a film I have never seen. They never seem to have made all-singing, all-dancing versions of the films I grew up watching, mainly Westerns, although there is Paint Your Wagon which did star Clint Eastwood whose work I have always admired, whether in front and/or behind the camera. Mentioning Eastwood, I read in the programme how Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay for a The Bodyguard film was rejected 67 times over 14 years before it got the green light from Warner Brothers and it, famously, reached cinemas in 1992 starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston. Neither were Kasdan’s first choice back in 1977 when he first wrote the original script, which had former Secret Service agent Frank Farmer regret not having saved John F Kennedy from assignation in 1963. Returning to Eastwood, in a film called In the Line of Fire he gave one of his best performances as a veteran Secret Service agent who also could not save Kennedy but is determined to protect the current president when his life is threatened. Eastwood played Frank Horrigan and Costner was Frank Farmer who is hired as a bodyguard to protect actress and singer Rachel Marron from an unknown stalker who has broken into a venue where she is singing and left a letter on her dressing room table and stole a dress. In the Line of Fire came out the year after The Bodyguard and the similarities are clear, except that Eastwood does not have a romantic relationship with the president he is protecting.

For The Bodyguard The Musical we seem to have left the 1990s far behind with some of the references we hear and particularly the frequent use of mobile phones and it literally all starts with a bang, though it not entirely clear whether Frank saved his previous client. In Act II when he retreats with Rachel to the cabin his, now deceased, parents owned after she returns from a concert in Miami and finds her stalker has been in her house and briefly it seems that her ten-year-old son, Fletcher, might have been abducted (he is soon found safe). In the cabin Frank expresses regret about all the time his job took him away from his parents before they died.

The stage version was first put on in London in 2012 with a book by Alexander Dinelaris, based on the original film and features 16 songs recorded by Whitney Houston which required beefed-up security at the Cliffs Pavilion and the posted warnings that any ‘enthusiasts’ singing along when they shouldn’t would be removed from the theatre. This followed an unfortunate Manchester evening earlier in the tour.  Initially Rachel and Frank clash because they are both stubborn and want to be in control. Did anybody, like me, see something of the Duchess of Sussex in the publicity-loving narcissist Rachel seems to be at the start encouraged by her overweening publicist Sy Spector and her manager Bill Devaney, who at least shows more concern for her safety than Sly.

After the opening gunshots we go straight into a disco number where the cast sing and dance up a storm during ‘Queen of the Night’. Thanks to the direction of Thea Sharrock, Frank Thompson and Jason Capewell there is an ease to the musical transitions from big numbers to the quieter ballads and the more anthemic ones. In between changes of scene drive the story on for the more intimate moments between the characters, as well as Rachel’s family time, rehearsals for her shows and writing and recording songs. All this is aided and abetted by Tim Hatley’s effective sets and colourful costumes. Frank is something of a father-figure to Fletcher and we learn how Rachel’s sister Nicki has set aside her dreams of stardom to support her sister, though perhaps she is the better singer and all she can get for herself is gigs at a small club. Nicki hopes there can be something between her and Frank and is disappointed when Rachel makes her move on him. Feeling overlooked results in Nicki dying at the hands of Rachel’s stalker, prompting thoughts as to how successful a bodyguard Frank actually is.

In fact, The Stalker looms large – especially with Duncan McLean’s video and Richard Brooker’s sound effects – throughout Act I and later there is a genuine jump-in-your-seat moment involving him. Truthfully, the musical does jump about a bit itself at the start and – as regards plot development – probably expects the audience to have seen the film; for instance, I wasn’t sure what the Oscar was that Rachel was campaigning for (it turned out to be Best Original Song and she sings ‘One Moment in Time’ that Rachel wrote with her sister). From the middle of the first act the tension rams up to its climax at an Academy Awards Ceremony as The Bodyguard The Musical grips you and does not let you go.

Melody Thornton (Rachel Marron) © Paul Coltas

Melody Thornton, who I suspect will be forever tagged as having been a member of The Pussycat Dolls but has done much more in her career, got better and better as Rachel during the show. Her acting was never in doubt but certainly during the opening ‘Queen of the Night’ she sang and danced self-consciously. Initially somewhat conceited and headstrong with those tasked to protect her, later she shows Rachel softening and following her heart. Thornton was at her very best in the emotional ‘Greatest Love of All’, as well as ‘One Moment in Time’ and the outstanding closing number ‘I Will Always Love You’ before headlining the company in the crowd-pleasing encore of ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ which found the audience on their feet and in full voice at last.

Ayden Callaghan was the dependable Frank Farmer, someone clearly determined to do his job to the best of his abilities but as Lawrence Kasdan writes in the programme eventually realises that ‘when he falls in love with the woman he’s charged with protecting, he begins to lose the very gifts that made him so valuable to her. He’s willing to die for her. But they can’t stay together.’ At the Karaoke night out with Rachel his off-key singing of ‘I Will Always Love You’ is a laugh-out-loud moment. Callaghan’s scenes with Rachel’s son (the engagingly precocious Frankie Keita) were relatable and funny, especially when bonding over the boy’s toy Mustang car. Thornton has several scenes with the boy which are touching and poignant. There is excellent chemistry between Thornton, Callaghan, Keita, as well as Emily-Mae’s Nicki Marron, another fine actor who brings great depth to her role. Emily-Mae has an even better voice than Thornton and it is heard to full effect in her solos, duets (notably ‘Run to You’) and as part of the ensemble. Highlights were her poignant ‘Saving All My Love for You’ and ‘All at Once’ when it dawns on Nicki how her love for Frank will remain unrequited.

James Groom does a great job as the cajoling Sy Spector, as do John Macaulay (Bill Devaney), Graham Elwell (as Rachel’s other bodyguard, Tony) and Fergal Coglan as Detective Ray Court who helps Frank track down The Stalker (a mesmerising and chilling Marios Nicolaides). Nevertheless, these roles are somewhat underwritten compared to the three leading ones. Kudos to the talented ensemble members who energetically sing and dance in those numbers they appear in, and to musical director Sam Hall’s small orchestra of six who performed all the iconic Whitney Houston songs splendidly.

Jim Pritchard

For more about The Bodyguard The Musical tour click here.

Screenplay – Lawrence Kasdan
Book – Alexander Dinelaris
Director – Thea Sharrock
Associate directors – Frank Thompson and Jason Capewell
Set and Costume designer – Tim Hatley
Lighting designer – Mark Henderson
Sound designer – Richard Brooker
Video designer – Duncan McLean
Choreographer – Karen Bruce
Musical supervisor – Richard Beadle
Orchestrator and Additional music – Chris Egan
Musical director – Sam Hall

Melody Thornton – Rachel Marron
Ayden Callaghan – Frank Farmer
Emily-Mae – Nicki Marron
James Groom – Sy Spector
John Macaulay – Bill Devaney
Graham Elwell – Tony Scibelli
Marios Nicolaides – The Stalker
Fergal Coghlan – Ray Court
Frankie Keita – Fletcher

Ensemble – Alexandros Beshonges, Kayne Gordon, Jack Hardwick, Kalisha Johnson,
Samantha Mbolekwa, Kellie Rhianne, Emma Jane Smith
Swings – James-Lee Haris, Liam Morris, Charlotte Scally, Yiota Theo, Marco Venturini

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