Mick Jackson’s 1992 romantic thriller The Bodyguard is a curious old thing. A musical film that regularly features on lists like ‘The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made’, it features more cheese than a fondue night in the Eastern Suburbs, yet it sports songs like I Will Always Love You, I’m Every Woman and I Have Nothing, and at 45 million copies worldwide it remains the best-selling soundtrack of all time. In other words, while it may look on paper to be the ultimate in bankable jukebox musicals, there’s a risk involved in staging a film that comes with descriptive baggage like ‘melodramatic’ and ‘potboiler’.

Paulini and Ensemble. All photos © Jeff Busby

I guess that gives a creative team a little leeway. As long as you deliver on the audience’s musical expectations, you can afford to serve up a little schlock along the way, and that’s just what Thea Sharrock’s hi-octane, occasionally high-camp staging delivers. When the ‘thriller’ moments come, in the best B-movie tradition the audience is as likely to laugh as gasp. And plenty of the deadpan lines drew guffaws on opening night. Surely it can’t be expected that the retort “Frank comes everywhere” isn’t laden with double entendre, but perhaps we weren’t meant to snort as Rachel surveys a post-coital Frank discreetly tucked up in her bed and sings “He fills me up”. Who knows whether it was the director’s intention to knowingly push all of these buttons, but I’d say the opening night audience enjoyed the subversive air of send up as much as any attempt at dramatic integrity.

The plot is simple. Pop diva Rachel Marron has attracted a psycho stalker, so former special agent turned bodyguard Frank Farmer is brought in to protect her. It’s no surprise that the two clash at first, and even less that developing mutual respect finds them tumbling into bed by the interval. Perhaps more surprising is security ace Frank’s decision to take Rachel, her son Fletcher and jealous but fundamentally decent sister Nicki away to a lonely cabin in the woods where, lo and behold, said psycho stalker shows up. It all leads to a final showdown at the Oscars – yes, Rachel has made a hit movie – where Frank naturally saves the day before Rachel signs off with a final rendition of I Will Always Love You.

The musical cuts out a lot of the movie’s subplots. A much nicer Nicki never hires a hitman to kill her sister, Frank’s father and the exploding boat go out the window, and crucially the complications where Rachel sleeps with the hitman to get back at Frank result in a less compelling storyline. But to be honest, who cares. The musical packs in a load more Whitney hits – Greatest Love Of All, I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Saving All My Love – and cleverly manages to fit most of them into the plot in a dramatically convincing and contextual fashion.

Weirdly, for all the production’s 80s vibe, the show seems to be set here and now – a phone filmed video of Rachel in a karaoke bar goes viral – but otherwise there’s little to prevent an audience wallowing in the guilty pleasures of Reagan era excess. The script preserves key lines from the film, and though it is often stilted and riddled with cliché (like the movie) it tells its tale efficiently and rarely holds up the main agenda, which is plainly to get on to the next hit number.

Of course, it’s the cheaper US touring version we are getting here in Oz rather than the full bells and whistles West End staging, and it all looks a little under-budget when it comes to the scenery (just how dodgy is Rachel’s taste in interior decor?). However, the big dance routines and tech-savvy video tricks help nudge it across the line, that and an impressive vocal performance from Paulini Curuenavuli in the original Whitney role.

It takes a brave performer to dive into a show and sing the back catalogue of perhaps the greatest pop diva of all time, but that is just what the producers demand here. That Fijian-born Paulini, a popular contestant of the very first Australian Idol, carries it off is a tribute to her warm onstage persona and her stellar vocals. She’s most at home, of course, belting out a showstopper like Queen of the Night (here with nifty flame effects easily felt in row J) or I’m Every Woman with a hip-wriggling Latin dance break. But she’s also great in the power ballads like I Have Nothing, and the final I Will Always Love You complete with glittering silver fishtail diva dress, dry ice and a hydraulic lift that will have you laughing and cheering all at once. In dialogue, she’s not bad either (though she’s less sure of what to do with her hands), and she charts the character arc smoothly from A to Z.

As her bodyguard, Kip Gamblin holds his own against a script that is short on motivational backstory. Kevin Costner’s Frank was taciturn to the point of silence, but Gamblin does what he can with a chattier role and a more paternal persona, though even he can’t rescue the inexplicably comic line “My father and I hooked a lot of bass out there”. Given the provenance of the music, all the songs in the show go to the two women, but his woefully off-key attempt to sing I Will Always Love You in a karaoke bar – the best scene in the show – is an intentionally (for once) comic highlight.

Among the supporting roles, Prinnie Stevens makes a nicely sung Nicki, delivering a Saving All My Love with winning high notes and blending seamlessly with Paulini in the duet version of Run To You. Without some of the film’s complexities, the role lacks teeth, but she acts well despite the musical’s softer focus. Patrick Williams is calm and authoritative as Rachel’s manager while Damian Bermingham makes for a rock-steady security director. Andrew Hazzard’s PR guru (the ludicrously named Sy Spector) is sadly a flappy send up, but Brendan Irving is suitably menacing as the hooded stalker and hilarious in the I Wanna Dance With Somebody curtain call where even serial killers get to let their hair down. As Rachel’s kid Fletcher, Rome Champion proved a Michael Jackson-esque scene-stealer, unmissable in the How Will I Know dance routine.

The ensemble of dancers work their arses off and Karen Bruce’s pop video choreography features the kind of thrusting pelvises and gratuitous ripped torsos that, dare I say, would have the feminists fuming if the genders were reversed. The small band under David Skelton might as well be on click track for all the feel we get of live music-making, but Richard Brooker’s sound design is excellent, as is Mark Henderson’s lighting.

I’ll confess, I went into this one with low expectations and came out floating on a cloud of schlock and fluff. Whether I was meant to have quite as good a time as I did, I’ll probably never know, but I’m going on the record here: I loved it! As great nights out go, The Bodyguard is a must see for Whitney fans, Paulini fans, or anyone with a fondness for sequins, smoke machines or the good old 1980s.

The Bodyguard is at the Lyric Theatre, Sydney until June 25 before a Melbourne season in August


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