This musical based on the hit 1992 film starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner has got the stuff that you want, it’s got the thing that you need. It might even bring you to your knees (if you’re so inclined). Everything about it is targeted at breathless poster quotes. It’s the kind of box-office juggernaut capable of steamrollering critics on its way to commercial success.
If you’ve sung enthusiastically along to Houston’s music in trashy karaoke bars since the Eighties and have the film on standby for a weepy night in, you’ll love this show. If neither of these is true, you’ll be wasting your evening and the cost of a ticket. Alexander Dinelaris’s book mostly sticks like glue to Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay and the majority of Houston’s pre-Nineties back catalogue is belted out at some point.
The plot is pure hokum: a stroppy diva up for a pair of Oscars for her first film role is assigned a no-nonsense bodyguard when an obsessive fan starts leaving threatening letters in her dressing room. They clash, they fight, they fall in love and he gets shot protecting her. She sings ‘I Will Always Love You’ as the stage fills with smoke and half the audience burst into tears.
Already planned when Houston died earlier this year, this production isn’t the ghoulish cash-in it might seem. But from the earliest film script, when it was intended as a vehicle for Steve McQueen and Diana Ross, exploitation for mass appeal has been at its heart. One singer no longer has the star wattage she once had? Find another and make a killing with the soundtrack. Skip forward 20 years and now Houston’s hits are the main attraction.
The clear parallels between Houston and her character, Rachel Marron, fed a fantasy of celebrity that turns life into cinema, lived in air-brushed close-up. The thrill of seeing Rachel off-stage in the film has the same comfortable pseudo-voyeurism as a photo-spread in Hello! There is no such thing as ‘behind the scenes’ when fame becomes a fairytale.
This slick production does the same, but by riffing on the tropes of cinema. When Lloyd Owen as Frank Farmer, the titular bodyguard, checks in with colleagues, the lighting is moody and noir-ish – the world of the gumshoe private investigator updated for the internet era. When he rescues Rachel from a crush in a nightclub, the two are silhouetted for several minutes, her in his arms.
Director Thea Sharrock gives us these high-impact images throughout: the iconography of countless film posters compacted into a celluloid punch that marries well with the heightened tenor of anthems like ‘One Moment in Time’ or ‘How Will I Know’. Scenes framed like jump-cuts and a screen that opens and closes like a camera shutter add to this effect. It’s enjoyably slick and well executed.
Less successful are the handful of pre-filmed scenes projected over the action at various points. These cheap-looking attempts to reproduce the visual language of cinema on stage are poor grafts from one medium to another, failing by trying to overlay rather than evoke the show’s filmic origins. A cringing chase sequence through a snowy forest is the worst offender.
If imitation is the worst form of flattery here, Heather Headley succeeds by not trying to impersonate Houston in the lead role. Hers is a less playful, fiercer Rachel, initially suspicious of Farmer and protective of her son. Her voice lacks Houston’s nuance, but she bats the high notes to the back of the theatre in spine-tingling fashion. When she sings ‘I’m Every Woman’ you believe her.
As Rachel lets down her guard, Headley and Owen – who leavens his by-numbers gruff bodyguard with a welcome wryness – cultivate a relationship you’re happy to root for. Their low-key, unforced chemistry gives the show’s flashiness some heart. Debbie Kurup also stands out as Nikki, Rachel’s overshadowed sister, a part given more prominence here than in the film. She and Headley singing ‘I Have Nothing’ reworked as a duet is a high point.
The other characters are cardboard cut-outs, with Rachel’s stalker summed up by a laughably simplistic psychological profile; and while talk of tracing emails and IP addresses neatly updates the story for our CSI era, the linking of his obsession to time spent in Iraq and Afghanistan comes across as crass. And his ability to smuggle a gun into the Oscars is as ridiculous now as it was in 1992.
But if you want depth and nuance, see another show. This is big budget popcorn entertainment that sends Houston’s songs soaring into the rafters. There are questions to be asked about the amount of money ploughed into yet another film adaptation rather than new writing. But if this is your thing, it’ll give you a fix like a sugar high. And I’ll admit that, by the encore, I was absolutely, without a doubt, ready to dance with somebody.