Jenay Naima (Rachel Marron) and the cast of The Bodyguard: The Musical playing at Theatre By The Sea thru August 5. Photos by Mark Turek.
When challenged to stage a show closely associated with an iconic performer, you can try to mimic their work and likely fail, or take a different tack and make it unique.
Thankfully, the latter is what the Theatre by the Sea team opted to do with The Bodyguard, a musical based on the 1992 Whitney Houston movie, playing through August 5.
While Jenay Naima, who plays the lead, Rachel, brings impressive vocals, even turning in a Houston-esque version of “I Will Always Love You” late in the two-hour production, her work on other songs is uniquely hers and not an unsuccessful attempt to mimic the late vocalist, named the second greatest singer of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.
The story of a pop singer whose team hires a bodyguard to protect her and her son after several violent threats, The Bodyguard is part romp through Houston’s greatest hits and part touching love story.
It’s imperative, however, that anyone sitting in the audience suspend their aural memory of Houston to best enjoy Naima’s vocals. In a strong show, she gives a mostly solid performance, with her personalized twist on songs like “Greatest Love of All” and “Saving All My Love for You.” Her take on “Run to You” is mesmerizing.
Yet, at some points, her voice simply can’t keep up with transitions between low and high notes. Those might have been places to further tailor songs to her skills. Instead, her versions of “How Will I Know” and a medley of “Million Dollar Bill,” “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and “So Emotional” prove somewhat disappointing.
Those caught up in the plot or channeling Houston’s 1980s voice might not notice the struggle, and Naima’s solid acting performance is bolstered by powerful contributions from the cast, particularly the vocals of LaDawn Taylor as Rachel’s sister Nicki. The subplot watches Nicki struggle in Rachel’s shadow, singing at a local dive bar to ease the stress of being assistant to the star. Taylor’s vocals power easily through “I Have Nothing” and “All at Once.”
In addition, the performance by Robb Sherman as strait-laced bodyguard Frank builds romantic and sexual tension throughout the show, and keeps the audience riveted when Rachel decides to perform despite the increasingly frightening nature of her stalker’s threats.
The production team’s choices with The Bodyguard – clever slow-motion scenes for action in the climax, incorporating new technology, and framing scenes with bright light beams – enhance the show. The choreography is also crisp and creative, saving some scenes when the vocals prove lackluster.
The Bodyguard is a nostalgic piece that audiences of all ages can enjoy. The music is familiar, the performances engaging. For tickets, go to www.theatrebythesea.com.