Paulini will star in the role immortalised on screen by Whitney Houston, in this musical version of the 90s blockbuster
Partway through Act One of The Bodyguard Musical, the set transforms into a karaoke bar and a group of three drunk women stumble onstage. They screlt their way through ‘Where Do Broken Hearts Go’. They’re loud and they’re laughing and they’re having the time of their lives, all angst drained out of the song by their giddy, messy, play. It’s great fun.
These three women are exactly the right audience for the musical itself. To enjoy it, it helps to have a few sparkling wines under your belt, and you should be prepared to laugh at the oh-so-dramatic plot twists that feel far more silly than serious. It’s more fun that way. This scene could almost be a spot-on deconstruction of the entire show, but this musical isn’t self-aware enough to pull it off.
If you’ve seen the inexplicably enduring 1992 film (starring Whitney Houston with a truly great soundtrack – mostly Whitney), you’ll know exactly what you’re in for: an A-list singer-turned actor, Rachel Marron (Paulini Curuenavuli, of Australian Idol fame), starts receiving death threats. The bodyguard hired to protect her (TV constant and accomplished dancer Kip Gamblin) is stoic and handsome and on the straight-and-narrow. The annoy each other; they fall for each other.
Can they ever truly be together? Will Rachel lose her life to her stalker? Is Rachel’s sister Nicki (The Voice’s Prinnie Stevens) going to win the heart of the bodyguard instead? And exactly how many Whitney numbers can you fit into a stage musical? (16, including one medley but not including reprises).
To be frank: this is a completely ridiculous musical. Dramatic projections of the stalker (Brendan Irving, doing his best to look menacing) or smoke-silhouettes of Rachel in her bodyguard’s arms are too earnest to be taken seriously, and take the place of plot development or the natural building of suspense (we know who the stalker is before the second number even starts). Pockets of laughter erupted from different corners of the audience every time a clunker of a line was spoken or plot point too broadly telegraphed. The audience’s response to a plaintive “Frank comes everywhere” was a particular delight on opening night, as the cast seemed completely unaware of the double entendre.
Curuenavuli and Stevens give sincere, determined performances despite the hokey material. Rachel Marron is a serious diva but Curuenavuli is too soft-edged for her barbs to sting; her attitude comes out only when she sings, her lines more wooden than imperious or even defensive. But it’s impossible to be disappointed by her voice, with range, depth, and frequent silken melismas. Stevens too sounds lovely – there’s a real sense of yearning in her numbers that’s immensely appealing. Even though her character’s narrative diverges from the filmed version, she’s still a significant and welcome presence onstage.
Gamblin gives a game performance as Frank Farmer, the bodyguard, but the book gives him absolutely nothing to work with – his dialogue is stilted, generic, and often redundant. He’s given a sweet, tone-deaf karaoke moment in the bar (the drunk girls, delightfully, are unimpressed) but aside from that Gamblin’s charisma is buried under the burden of being the musical’s straight man and voice of reason; whenever a scene gets fun, it’s Frank’s job to stop the fun. You start to resent him for protecting Rachel, because it means we, as the audience, get less pyrotechnics or superstar chaos.
The show is only really alive when it’s set to music, because Whitney Houston’s catalogue endures for a reason: it’s irresistibly danceable, ambitiously sing-along-able, and her lyrics are filled with massive heart, delivered with a knowing twist.
With such great music and such boring scenes it’s a bit like arriving too late to Palms on Oxford on a Saturday night when ‘How Will I Know’ is playing and everyone else is having a blast. Only on this night, there’s no room for you on the dance floor and you had to pay a steep cover charge to sit on a chair and keep your mouth shut.
The numbers are a tease in The Bodyguard, with a bold ensemble of shiny abs and gold sequins dancing with endless energy, your favourite songs just out of reach. You start hoping that the curtain call will have an interactive singalong (it does) and that it’ll be the Whitney party song (it is), just so you can get in on the fun.
After all, you’ve earned it after sitting through the two hours and 10 minutes of slow-moving set transitions, melodramatic stalker scenes, and a strangely anti-climactic, life-threatening finale.
Be those girls on their night out. Be you on your best, sparkliest night out. Get your friends. Drink some drinks. Pre-game with a singalong at home to get in the mood. Go to a gay bar – or karaoke – right after. Not only have you’ve earned it, but you will probably have a ball.
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