REVIEW: "The Bodyguard" — Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, Claremont
Never let her out of your sight — Never let your guard down — Never fall in love.
CLAREMONT, CA — A former Secret Service agent grudgingly takes on an assignment to protect a pop idol who’s receiving death threats by a crazed fan. At first, the safety-obsessed bodyguard and the imperious diva totally clash. But before long, all that tension sparks fireworks of another sort, and the love-averse tough guy is torn between duty and romance.
Based on the 1992 smash-hit film, “The Bodyguard,” this breathtaking romantic thriller musical of the same name comes to life at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, playing through September 28th, capturing a perfect blend of class and classics, and making this one of the most entertaining evenings at Candlelight ever!
The origins of the megahit movie, “The Bodyguard” actually go all the way back to the late 1960’s before it finally went into production. Lawrence Kasdan, the co-writer of “The Empire Strikes Back” and director of films such as “The Big Chill” and “Mumford,” penned the screenplay specifically for Steve McQueen and Diana Ross, but the project fell apart due to disagreements over top billing. When it looked as if Ross was to get the top spot, McQueen walked. It was later resurrected as a vehicle for Kevin Costner, who had been tracking the project for many years, even before he hit the big time.
The film sees Costner as the best bodyguard in the business (along with the worst haircut in the business). And when Frank is offered the job of protecting a superstar diva, he instantly proclaims that "I don't do celebrities." Five minutes later, he has agreed to meet one.
The musical adaptation of 2012 brings the tumultuous love story forward to present day and changes the focus of the story, bringing the character of Rachel Marron to the forefront rather than the bodyguard, and creating a mélange of by-the-numbers dialogue, jukebox songs, square-frame staging, video projections and brilliant choreography that would have seemed old hat in the early days of MTV, but so new again in today’s world.
And as now rendered by the blazing Daebreon Poiema, the songs are impeccably performed, but surprisingly, so much more is her tender, assailable acting performance, suggesting a vulnerable woman under the iron carapace of a superstar. In fact, she just may be a far more nuanced actor than her forerunner. I won’t say she is a better singer than Whitney, but who is? She does make those Top 40 standards sound brand-new, however, with a voice that twists notes into unexpected, shimmering shapes.
In addition to being the requisite raving beauty as Ms. Houston was, Ms. Poiema, whose previous Candlelight credits include “My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra,” and “Sister Act,” admirably handles the daunting challenge of filling her predecessor’s considerably brilliant shoes. She projects her numbers with ear-pounding force, carefully modulated, in a fire-and-ice blend of professional extroversion.
Featuring many of the greatest hits by Whitney Houston, the procession of Houston tracks also include "So Emotional," "One Moment in Time," "I'm Your Baby Tonight," "How Will I Know," "Oh Yes," "All the Man That I Need," "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," and the beautiful declarative signature song, “I Will Always Love You.”
Like many performers who read large onstage, this Rachel tries to wrap herself in a cloak of anonymity when she’s not performing, and Ms. Poiema makes us feel the friction in that contradiction, seemingly both supercilious and oddly humble at the same time. This duality of character is as if a real diamond has been set in the ring that comes in a Cracker Jack box.
For example, Rachel is first seen ruling an audience with equal measures of embellishing vamp and real, raw sensuality in a captivating Houston-style staging of “Queen of the Night.” Yet she’s virtually unrecognizable when she subsequently shows up in civilian denim in her palatial Los Angeles home.
Ms. Poiema’s Rachel is ideally partnered by Brent Schindele, who, last year played another Frank at the Candlelight in “Annie Get Your Gun.” Best known for his “Sound of Music” national tour, Mr. Schindele plays her champion with controlled conviction. Other previous main-lead performances by Mr. Schindele include “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” “West Side Story,” “Guys and Dolls,” and he has also recently starred as young Ronald Reagan in the world premiere of “In a Booth” at Chasen’s in North Hollywood.
The story of its fictional pop star being pursued by a deranged stalker fan has the high stakes of a white knuckle thriller, yet her brooding guardian angel Frank has little interest at first in protecting what he thinks will be a coddled, self-absorbed celebrity. He agrees to take the job only when he finds out that Rachel has a 10-year-old son (10th grader Amari Figueras was delightfully endearing as Rachel’s son Fletcher — a demanding role for a child actor, and definitely one to watch!).
Not surprisingly, Rachel also has little use for her stoic, macho watchdog, who cramps her style with his endless restrictions on her movements. That is, until he rescues her from danger while she’s performing in a crowded nightclub. In a steamy, striking pose, right before the scene goes black, Director John LaLonde cameos that seminal image of the bodyguard cradling his charge in his arms. Realizing she could have been hurt if not for him, Rachel promptly warms up enough to ask Frank out on a date — “Only if you want to,” she says coyly — and soon they’re romantically involved.
The show's book by Alexander Dinelaris (Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Birdman”) also rejiggers the role of Rachel Marron's sister, Nicki (Deanna Anthony). The gorgeous-voiced Ms. Anthony (“Dreamgirls,” “Mama Mia”) is leading-edge as Rachel’s sister, with vocals that easily compete with those of Rachel’s but whose career hasn’t matched it (“Saving All My Love for You,” “All At Once”). Ms. Anthony is skittishly beguiling as she plays the superstar's neglected, undervalued sister with her secret crush on the bodyguard after a particularly titillating tease scene.
Jim Skousen (“The Addams Family”) plays Sy Spector, Ron Hastings (“Legally Blonde”) is Bill Devaney, and Mike Truelock (“Bonnie and Clyde”) portrays Tony Scibelli and Ray Court. Much of the choreography was too-too mind-blowing, a phenomenal display of backup trick dancing, led by dance captain James Odom. The dance ensemble includes Lisa Stone, Xavier J. Bush, Zaylin Elleni Cano, Lexi Cross, Denise Esteves, Judy Fernandez, Brandon J, Israel Lacy and Kristin O’Connell. This amazing group of super slick supporting cast looks like they just stepped out of a pop video, with choreography you may never see again.
At times, the show feels much like a horror film, heavily playing up the plot’s foreboding aspects, with the virulent, unhinged Stalker, played by Chris Coon (“We Will Rock You”), frequently seen up to no good, sometimes sending Rachel creepy, ominous death threats and, even worse, stealing gowns from her dressing room. In particular, unlike the movie, the key character of The Stalker is reduced to a single figure, who maintains a genuinely eerie stage presence. First seen in a nifty piece of staging, leering vertically high on the shadowed, rear wall risers, The Stalker creates some genuine moments of terror, well above the fear generally associated with musical theatre.
Ironically, the first rendition of the iconic “I Will Always Love You” is performed by a rugged, charismatic Frank at a karaoke bar (one of the scenes in the show with real emotional resonance), in which he deliberately warbles with very little dynamic or inflection. Understandably, Frank’s plain vanilla performance by Mr. Schindele there figures into the stirring show’s finale, with Ms. Poiema’s formidable pipes doing it full justice in a heart-wrenchingly beautiful rendition. As Rachel is asked to take a turn at the karaoke mike, she suddenly transforms herself from mousy to majestic in seconds, with the spellbound room turning into dazed worshipers at a shrine.
It is all put across with considerable proficiency. Under John LaLonde’s direction, Mark Gamez & Merrill Grady’s split-second costuming and Bo Tindell’s lighting, along with associate Jonathan Daroca, it all suggests we are watching something halfway between a rock concert and a piece of live cinema: the sets are modified within moments, there are fast cuts and dissolves, lots of fog and retina-dazzling colors. Background projections are masterfully artistic and handled by Aaron Hancock; Wigs are by Michon Gruber-Gonzales.
Along with Chuck Ketter’s glitzy set design, John Vaughan’s high-octane pop choreography, as well as fierce musical numbers, directed by Kevin Gasio, this show catapults in my opinion to the best of the movie-originated jukebox musicals around.
Director LaLonde’s vividly imaginative production keeps its drama on the boil throughout while never stinting on the fantastic delivery of its iconic songs. While the fans will, of course, relish the knock-out hits that Houston herself made famous, the show has its own genuine theatrical flair. And
with both Ms. Poiema and Ms. Anthony being Houston fans with lungs to rival the late Whitney, you’re guaranteed musical performances that easily lives up to any expectations instilled in you by the original film.
In this leading cast of high caliber execution and songs that literally blows the roof off the Candlelight, it is no surprise that the audience is dancing in the aisles by the finale. So if you need a high-entertainment fix, get ready to see one of the most extraordinary and enjoyable shows offered in Southern California.
Currently playing through September 28th, Friday and Saturday evenings at 6pm. Sunday evenings at 5pm. Saturday and Sunday matinees at 11am, with a special Thursday evening performance on September 26th at 6pm. Online reservations may be made at www.thecpdt.com You may also call (909) 626-1254, ext 1. Regular ticket prices range from $63-$78, which includes both dinner and show.
The Show Report