Visual and vocal pizazz make ‘Bodyguard’ a nostalgic treat

Deborah Cox as Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard (Photos by Joan Marcus)
Deborah Cox as Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard (Photos by Joan Marcus)

By Richard Ades

I thought I’d seen flashy theatrical shows in the past, but I now realize I was mistaken. When it comes to flashiness, The Bodyguard is in a class by itself.

A stage remake of the 1992 flick starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston, the musical literally starts off with a bang—that is, a gunshot. After stunning viewers into rapt attention, director Thea Sharrock then holds their attention with flashy production numbers (choreographed by Karen Bruce), flashy sets and costumes (designed by Tim Hatley), flashy lighting (designed by Mark Henderson) and, most importantly of all, flashy singing. The latter is mostly provided by Deborah Cox, who does an expert job of filling in for the late and lamented Houston.

Mind you, I don’t mean to give the impression that The Bodyguard is nothing but flash. What makes the romantic thriller palatable and even enjoyable is that Sharrock knows the value of restraint. The thrills are meted out in a judicious manner that makes them all the more exciting when they arrive. That goes for the dramatic thrills, sometimes accompanied by a pleasantly startling jolt, but it particularly goes for the musical thrills.

One of the most entertaining scenes takes place in a karaoke club where disguised pop star Rachel Marron (Cox) has been persuaded to sing one of her own hit songs. After coyly understating the verse, setting off an “Is it her or isn’t it her?” chatter among a trio of college-age fans, she charges into the chorus with all the vocal power at her command. The fans squeal in delight, as does much of the audience.

Much later, Cox’s Rachel pulls off a similar trick with the Houston hit we all came to hear, I Will Always Love You. She underplays the first few verses, making us fear we’ll have to go back to the movie to hear it sung right. Then, to everyone’s delight, both Cox and director Sharrock pull out all the stops.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s a love story to get through before we arrive at that spectacular moment. It’s not a very interesting love story, but the leads’ likable and unassuming performances make it diverting enough to tide us over between songs.

Rachel (Deborah Cox) and bodyguard Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) decide to give romance a try.
Rachel (Deborah Cox) and bodyguard Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) decide to give romance a try.

When Rachel’s life is threatened by a deranged stalker (Jorge Paniagua), her handlers hire bodyguard Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) to keep her safe. The two initially rub each other the wrong way, mostly because Rachel chafes against the cautious restrictions Frank tries to institute. But eventually they fall for each other and start, you know, rubbing each other the right way—until Frank realizes that their affair is compromising his ability to do his job.

Besides Rachel and Frank, the only relatable characters are Rachel’s sister, Nikki (Jasmin Richardson), and son, Fletcher (Douglas Baldeo). As Fletcher, Baldeo (replaced by Kevelin B. Jones III at alternate performances) is simply adorable. As the jealous Nikki, an aspiring singer who’s had to live her life in her famous sibling’s shadow, Richardson showcases her wide vocal range and dramatic style on the gorgeous solo Saving All My Love. (Note: Richardson will play Rachel at the Saturday matinee and Sunday evening performances.)

Supporting characters include Rachel’s press agent, Sy (Jonathan Hadley), and manager, Bill (Charles Gray), but other than Sy’s pushiness, neither is given much of a personality.

First performed in London’s West End in 2012 and featuring a book by Alexander Dinelaris, the musical simplifies the 1992 movie’s plot. No doubt, this was done to make it easier to stage, but the main motivation was probably to leave more room for the Whitney Houston songs that were the flick’s most timeless attributes.

With a star who approximates Houston’s vocal power and a production flashy enough to make up for its dramatic shortcomings, The Bodyguard should please fans of the movie and just about everyone else.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present The Bodyguard through Sunday (Feb. 19) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $34-$99. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

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Timely revue pays homage to groundbreaking artists

Leah Haviland, Nick Wilson, Noelle Grandison, Nikki Davis and Guillermo Jemmott (from left) in Evolutionaries: The Stories and Music of David Bowie and Prince, opening this week at Shadowbox Live (Photo by Buzz Crisafulli)
Leah Haviland, Nick Wilson, Noelle Grandison, Nikki Davis and Guillermo Jemmott (from left) in Evolutionaries: The Stories and Music of David Bowie and Prince (Photo by Buzz Crisafulli)

By Richard Ades

Shadowbox Live has created a new art form of sorts with its musical tribute shows. Past efforts and the musicians they celebrated include Mad Dog and Englishman (Joe Cocker), Which One’s Pink? (Pink Floyd) and Bigger Than Jesus (the Beatles).

The current Evolutionaries differs from its predecessors by celebrating two artists, Prince and David Bowie, both of whom were lost prematurely in 2016. Otherwise, it follows the established pattern by offering great music accompanied by dancing, vintage video footage and enlightening tidbits of information.

With two groundbreaking careers to cover, Evolutionaries could well have run much longer than its two hours and 15 minutes. One way that director Julie Klein and head writer Jimmy Mak keep it to a comfortable length is by limiting the biographical material to short statements delivered by narrator Michelle Daniels. Through these we learn, for instance, that Prince suffered from epileptic fits as a child and that young Bowie dreamed of becoming the British Elvis.

More generally, Daniels points out that Prince and Bowie shared a fluid attitude toward gender and sexuality. In Bowie’s case, his whole identity seemed to be in a continual state of flux, as reflected by Ziggy Stardust and other alter egos who emerged onstage over the years.

Another way the show avoids overstaying its welcome is by restricting itself to the songs that are considered indispensable. No doubt some fans will complain that this or that favorite was left out, but those that were included add up to an entertaining synopsis of two revolutionary careers. Among the many highlights:

When Doves Cry (Prince), sung by Stacie Boord and featuring one of several screaming guitar solos by Matthew Hahn.

Changes (Bowie), featuring honey-sweet vocals by Boord and one of several glorious saxophone solos delivered at alternate performances by Jonathan Weisbrot and Kevin O’Neill.

Ziggy Stardust (Bowie), sung by Gabriel Guyer in the guise of the strutting interplanetary traveler.

Electric Chair (Prince), with lead vocals by Noelle Grandison, a funky guitar solo by Brent Lambert and a wild finish.

Let’s Go Crazy (Prince), a gospel-style number sung by Boord and featuring orgasmic “organ” riffs pounded out by keyboardist Kevin Patrick Sweeney.

Dance moves choreographed by Katy Psenicka provide the perfect visual accompaniment to many numbers. During Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Nikki Davis and Nick Wilson sample vintage dance styles ranging from the Charleston to disco. Later, a blindfolded Guyer sings Bowie’s Lazarus while wandering through a group of graceful but equally blindfolded dancers.

In the funniest number, four preening “models” (Davis, Wilson, Guillermo Jemmott and Eryn Reynolds) vie for our approval while Guyer sings Bowie’s Fame.

Video images edited by David Whitehouse also play a prominent role. The most somber sequence assaults us with scenes from wars, riots and other acts of violence while Boord sings Prince’s Sign o’ the Times.

Timely and informative, Evolutionaries is a heartfelt gift to Bowie and Prince fans, and an opportunity for everybody else to appreciate what we’ve lost.

Evolutionaries: The Stories and Music of Prince and David Bowie continues through May 25 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. select Wednesdays and Thursdays. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: $25, $20 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Comedy offers horrific orgy of sex, blasphemy and puppetry

Jason (Danny Turek), a teenager possessed by his demonic hand puppet, threatens Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) in Short North Stage’s production of Hand to God. (Photo by Jason Allen)
Jason (Danny Turek), a teenager possessed by his demonic hand puppet, threatens Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) in Short North Stage’s production of Hand to God. (Photos by Jason Allen)

By Richard Ades

Hand to God has moments of hilarity, along with moments of horror. It starts, though, with a moment of disorientation.

Because set designer Bill Pierson has reconfigured the Garden Theater’s Green Room to resemble a church rec room, and because guests are handed a “church bulletin” on their way in, they may be unprepared for what happens next. A puppet appears on the “stage” of a miniature theater set up on one side of the room. But rather than offer the expected Christian message, he begins talking about “extracurricular fucking” and other things that are bad but “unavoidable.”

This, we learn, is Tyrone, and he’ll be saying and doing things that are even more outrageous before the show is over. Is he the devil, or is he simply a manifestation of a teenage boy’s inner thoughts and desires? That’s one of the questions playwright Robert Askins raises in his religion-taunting comedy.

The sacrilegious fun starts in earnest when we meet the flesh-and-blood characters who come into contact with Tyrone (and lose a little flesh and blood in the process).

Jessica (Kate Lingnofski) is a recently widowed mom who is supervising a puppet-making project at the Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Cypress, Texas. Taking part in the project are teenagers Margery (Barbara Weetman) and Timothy (Chad Goodwin), along with Jessica’s son, Jason (Danny Turek). Overseeing it all is Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam), who hopes the puppets will be used to spread the Gospel.

Thanks to Tyrone, that never happens. Created by Jason and attached more or less permanently to his left hand, the puppet appears to have a mind of his own. And what a disturbing mind it is—by Texas Lutheran standards, at least. He insists on blurting out thoughts that the shy and conflicted Jason would prefer to keep private, such as his carnal feelings toward Margery. Saddled with what amounts to a dual role, Turek does an admirable job of switching back and forth between the put-upon Jason and his vicious alter ego.

Jessica (Kate Lingnofski) watches as Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) confronts an amorous Timothy (Chad Goodwin).
Jessica (Kate Lingnofski) watches as Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) confronts an amorous Timothy (Chad Goodwin).

Working under Edward Carignan’s exuberant direction, the other cast members perform at the same high level. Weetman makes Margery an appealing combination of sweetness and pluck, while Putnam gives Pastor Greg a believable blend of human fallibility and heroic strength. As the frustrated Jessica and the hormone-driven Timothy, Lingnofski and Goodwin create big laughs while acting out an encounter that is aggressively kinky and probably illegal.

My only quibble with Askins’s comedy is that it tries too hard to be outrageous. OK, I can buy that Bible Belt Christians have secret frustrations and desires that sometimes lead them into unspeakable acts, but would they really drop so many F-bombs in the process? That’s a minor point, though.

Overall, the show is a provocative delight. As a bonus, it even leaves viewers with a final thought from Tyrone that gives them something to mull over on the way home.

Short North Stage will present Hand to God through March 5 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday (no 3 p.m. show Feb. 25), and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

Musical mermaid yearns for love in Disney do-over

Diana Huey as Ariel in the touring production of The Little Mermaid, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (Photo by Mark & Tracy Photography)
Diana Huey as Ariel in the touring production of The Little Mermaid, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (Photos by Mark & Tracy Photography)

By Richard Ades

In mythic lore, mermaids were seductive creatures whose haunting voices lured sailors to their deaths. In modern times, The Little Mermaid lured Disney to one of its rare stumbles: a 2008 Broadway musical that failed to reclaim the magic of the company’s 1989 animated flick. The production garnered so-so reviews and sank a year and a half later.

Now, in a salvage operation consisting of a complete overhaul, Disney has relaunched the tale in a touring show that corrects most of the original production’s faults. It’s still no Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, but it’s a likable show that should keep parents and their young princes and princesses entertained.

Directed by Glenn Casale, the show uses cables and Kenneth Foy’s modest but attractive scenery to re-create the title character’s underwater world. The cables allow Ariel (Diana Huey) and others to “swim” through the domain ruled by her father, King Triton (Steve Blanchard). In scenes set at the surface or edge of the ocean, they allow her feathered friend Scuttle (Jamie Torcellini) to “fly.”

Though much has changed in the way the tale is told, the basic plot remains the same: Ariel is a teenage mermaid who has long been fascinated by humans despite her father’s claim that they’re barbarians who murdered her mother. Her fascination blossoms into a full-blown crush when she spies the seagoing Prince Eric (Matthew Kacergis) and subsequently saves his life when he falls overboard in a sudden storm.

Determined to meet the handsome Eric (who was unconscious when she pulled him from the sea), she makes a Faustian bargain with her evil aunt, Ursula (Jennifer Allen): Ariel will become human, but she will forfeit her soul unless she can persuade the prince to kiss her within three days. In addition, she will immediately lose her voice. That’s unfortunate for her, because Eric has fallen in love with the singing voice he heard before the storm and is determined to find and marry its owner.

Jennifer Allen as the villainous Ursula
Jennifer Allen as the villainous Ursula

Though The Little Mermaid lacks the emotional depth of the best Disney musicals, it partially makes up for it by throwing in a boatload of humor. Scuttle’s misuse of the English language is a bit forced, but Allen’s tentacled and self-amused Ursula is good for chuckles. Funnier still is a scene in which a French chef (Dane Stokinger) prepares a meal by smashing deceased sea creatures with various kitchen utensils.

As Ariel, Huey is most successful at portraying the humorous side of puppy (guppy?) love, especially after the mermaid transforms into a human. In the sea, she’s often overshadowed by the more colorful characters around her, but on land, she’s amusingly awkward as Ariel struggles to deal with an unfamiliar body and emotions. (It’s probably unnecessary to point out that the former mermaid’s struggles symbolically parallel what the average girl goes through during her teen years.)

Despite the emphasis on comedy, The Little Mermaid’s biggest strengths are the tunes penned by composer Alan Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater. Sebastian (Melvin Abston), a crab who becomes Ariel’s protector, makes the most of two popular holdovers from the movie: Under the Sea and Kiss the Girl. Huey’s lovely voice soars on Ariel solos such as Part of Your World, while Kacergis displays the production’s strongest pipes on Eric’s numbers Her Voice and One Step Closer.

One element of the plot could use further honing: The inevitable happy ending comes about thanks to a sudden development that left both me and my date scratching our heads. Otherwise, The Little Mermaid—both the title character and the revised telling of her story—offers an inspiring lesson on the value of perseverance.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Disney’s The Little Mermaid through Sunday (Feb. 5) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $29-$94. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, broadway.columbus.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.