Too often, trying to squeeze some joy out of the commercial theater requires the downward adjustment of expectations.
Few who attended the opening of "The Bodyguard: The Musical" in Shea's Performing Arts Center walked into the theater expecting to be transported by high art to the threshold of revelations.
Many, lured by the formidable talents of star Deborah Cox and pleasant memories of the 1992 movie on which the show is based, were likely expecting to be transported to a place they've been many times before. Sort of like the theatrical equivalent of a trip to Wegmans.
"The Bodyguard," like so many film-to-stage commodities that have emerged over the last decade or so, privileges familiarity over revelation. With absurdly large projection screens and ham-fisted references to images from the movie, it slips absentmindedly into the language of film when it ought to be speaking the language of theater.
Lawrence Kasdan's flawed screenplay, upon which Alexander Dinelaris' book marginally improves, tells the story of a self-obsessed singer and her quietly tortured protector. In the way of character development, it contains only archetypes.
Those characters had to rely on the film's faux-noir style and the acting talents of Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston to rescue them from their emptiness. (They did not.) But here, at least, we have a universally excellent cast punching far above the material's weight. That's in addition to a tight pit band and breathless choreography from Karen Bruce that pumps bright blood through a story that was for all intents and purposes dead on arrival.
Thanks to excellent performances from Cox and Judson Mills as the bodyguard, the cardboard characters of the film gain a millimeter or two of depth. That's thanks to some wise tweaks in Alexander Dinelaris' book, which amps up the love interest between Frank and Nicki and adds a hilarious scene in a karaoke bar. Alas, it's not enough to lend any of what we're seeing much credibility.
But here's a reasonable question: Who needs credibility when you've got Deborah Cox?
The answer, at least when she is in the throes of "I Have Nothing" or "I Will Always Love You," is not one bit. Cox delivers a stunning performance as Rachel Marron, both evoking Houston's seemingly effortless delivery and adding her own irresistible grace notes. Grace, in fact, is the defining feature of Cox's performance, and she earned every last clap that resounded through the theater on opening night. (A note: Cox will not perform during the Saturday matinee and Sunday evening performances.)
Mills, of "Walker, Texas Ranger," plays his character exactly as written: a caricature who parrots charming lines and sustains an exaggerated masculinity that Mills milks for every possible laugh. And as Rachel's conflicted sister Nicki, Jasmin Richardson gives a remarkable performance on "Saving All My Love" and "All At Once." And the energetic ensemble does not miss a beat.
As the growing genre of '90s film-to-stage adaptations go, "The Bodyguard" sits somewhere in the middle. It avoids the pitfalls of lesser commodities like "Ghost," but falls far below the standard set by "Sister Act." In all these cases, the strength of the show depends largely on the strength of the source material.
To say it's lacking in "The Bodyguard" would be an understatement. But there is still -- and here's where that adjustment of expectations should happen -- plenty to enjoy in this production.
Like putting on that old Tom Petty record or picking up your daily order from Tim Hortons, the draw of this show boils down to comfort and familiarity. Its creators were capable of more.
"The Bodyguard: The Musical"
★ ★ (out of 4)
Through Oct. 29 in Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. Tickets are $32 to $75. Call 847-0850 or visit sheas.org.