Almost ten months after Whitney Houston’s tragic death on February 11, a stage version of the 1992 film she starred in called The Bodyguard has arrived in the West End kitted out with all of her greatest hits, including two songs from the film itself that were both Oscar-nominated, I Have Nothing and Run to You.
Heather Headley (Rachel Marron) and Lloyd Owen (Frank Farmer) in The Bodyguard at the Adelphi Theatre, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
The show, meanwhile, could have audiences running to the Adelphi for lots of reasons - a recognisable title and a back catalogue that are effectively mapped to that existing story. So it ticks all the boxes for an example of a show that Mamma Mia!’s advertising slogan epitomises: ‘You already know you’re gonna love it.’
That formula, however, is not infallible - let us not forget Desperately Seeking Susan, which applied the exact same principles of marrying an existing back catalogue to a film story, but blurred boundaries between its original film star Madonna and the music of Blondie and fell between two iconic stools in the process. It also didn’t help that both of those inspirations are still alive and still producing material in their own right.
For if the lure of the familiar is one factor, there’s also the memorial one - while Thriller Live!, the Michael Jackson tribute show, gained an extra timely boost from his death after the show had already opened, this musical - in planning long before her death - has surely, if unintentionally, gained from that fact, too.
But does it work beyond that? If you didn’t know either Houston or the film, would you care? That’s where this show scores its own singular triumph - as well as multiple others. The first and most spectacular one is to provide its own utterly compelling star in Broadway’s Heather Headley, who channels the fictitious R’n’B superstar Rachel Marron (played by Houston in the film) with an authentic glamour and blazingly soulful vocals but also humanises her, too.
Alexander Dinelaris’ book, based on Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay, provides her with a gripping, high-stakes narrative, in which her manager Bill Devaney (Ray Shell) has to urgently review her personal security arrangements when she’s pursued by a stalker. If the rest of her existing personal entourage - publicist, choreographer and security man etc - are only sketchily portrayed, there’s more depth to the main thrust of her developing relationship, both professional and personal, with her new bodyguard (the craggily handsome Lloyd Owen), and the subsidiary one of her own sister (the equally fierce-voiced Debbie Kurup), who is co-writer of her songs but otherwise resentfully shadowing her from the sidelines.
Thea Sharrock’s fast, seamless staging keeps those narrative strands boiling while also delivering a relentless parade of knock-out solo and production numbers. That flow is expertly sustained by the cinematic fluidity of Tim Hatley’s designs which define and redefine multiple locations with effortless ease (including an aerial shot of the stalker that’s borrowed from the theatrical techniques of Robert Lepage), aided by Duncan McLean’s video projections and Mark Henderson’s dazzling rock concert lighting. The music department - supervisor and vocal arranger Mike Dixon, orchestrator and musical arranger Chris Egan, and musical director Richard Beadle - ensure that the songs are heard at recording standard.
There are currently 22 musicals running in the West End, and if it’s a little depressing that eight of them are shows based on pop back catalogues, I’m happy to report that The Bodyguard has the integrity and production values of a Mamma Mia! or Jersey Boys, rather than the cheap, knock-off exploitation of a Rock of Ages or Let It Be.