The Bodyguard, the Musical at the New Orleans Jazz Market through August 27
About seven years ago, the Anthony Bean Community Theater (ABCT) was asked to leave its longtime home on Carrollton Avenue as the church that rented space to them wanted to start using its auditorium hall for other purposes.
After a brief search, ABCT thought it had found a new home, a decommissioned church on Paris Avenue. Unfortunately, it was riddled with asbestos and ABCT was never able to move in.
So, led by founder Anthony Bean, the intrepid theater company scaled back its operations, focusing on its vital youth, school and camp programs as it looked for a new permanent home. Worthy efforts, indeed, but it left a void in the New Orleans theater scene, particularly when it came to showcasing plays by Black authors and featuring predominantly African-American casts.
I’m thus pleased to report that ABCT has at last returned with its production of The Bodyguard, the Musical at the New Orleans Jazz Market. This stage adaptation of the hit Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner movie may not engender the greatest love of all, but it’s definitely right and much more than okay to have ABCT back again.
Bodyguard, the Musical began in London’s West End and then toured all over the U.S. in 2017-18, including a stop at the Saenger, without ever making it to Broadway. The plot differs somewhat from the movie but basically covers the same territory: Frank Farmer, an ex-Secret Service agent, is hired to protect Rachel Marron, a pop diva who’s being threatened by a stalker and their ensuing relationship. Alexander Dinelaris’ script ain’t gonna win any awards for subtlety and the dialogue doesn’t sparkle the way Rachel’s outfits do, but it’s still an entertaining musical thriller.
Director Bean may not have the oodles of resources available the way the touring version did but, compared to it, two things work in favor of his production.
First, Bean has taken a camp-free approach. Without all the bells and whistles millions of investor dollars allow for, ABCT’s Bodyguard may not be as flashy but it’s more sincere and, hence, more involving; you actually care what happens to this Rachel. And by having his cast play it straight, Bean has brought out more of the underlying humor in this often preposterous tale (as most thrillers are).
Second, the show’s tour featured a star turn by R&B diva Deborah Cox; the eponymous bodyguard kinda faded into the background. At the Jazz Market, Assata Renay gives a fine performance as Rachel, but she’s matched by Jake Wynne-Wilson as Frank. Wynne-Wilson is such a strong actor and, with a stolid masculinity, inhabits the role so wholly that he shifts the musical’s focus away from just Rachel and rebalances it so their relationship is given more weight. Great chemistry between Renay and Wynne-Wilson only adds to the verisimilitude of this Bodyguard.
Assata Renay and Jake Wynne-Wilson in The Bodyguard, The Musical
As Rachel’s sister/manager Nikki, Eliza Sonnenschein projects both a winsome appeal and an understandable jealousy of her sister’s success, both onstage and off, in and out of the bedroom. Her voice blends beautifully with Renay’s during their duet Run to You.
The rest of the cast, including Dedrick LaBee as Rachel’s hyperactive press agent and Carter M. Williams as her adorable young son, are all good, capably fulfilling the demands of their two-dimensional roles, or, in the case of the stalker, a mere one dimension.
Giselle Nakhid provides stylish choreography for Rachel’s dancers and Music Director Alfred Salvant makes his three-piece band sound like a full orchestra (granted he uses tracks and other electronic legerdemain but I could’ve sworn I heard a live saxophone at one point.)
To be sure, the production is a little scruffy around the edges with static occasionally percolating through the mics and lighting that frames the stage seemingly having a mind of its own.
But with a score full of classic songs including How Will I Know, Saving All My Love for You, I Will Always Love You, One Moment in Time, etc. (yeah, it’s a jukebox musical but how many other non-biomusicals have so many hits in them?), such minor drawbacks are easily overlooked allowing us to enjoy The Bodyguard’s singing & dancing, and celebrate the return of the Anthony Bean Community Theater to NOLA’s boards.
[For tickets and more info, go to http://anthonybeantheater.com/BoxOffice.php]
Sweet Bird of Youth at the Marigny Opera House through August 19
Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth is a tough play to get just right these days.
An indictment of the repressed sexuality and the South’s racist patriarchy of the Eisenhower era, some of its melodramatic elements now come off as dated. Yet it also seems prescient for prophesying the heightened obsession with fame and youth of today, as well as the current noxious Republican brand of populism. I could imagine a production that toggles back and forth between the eras.
Doug Spearman’s well-paced production for The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans nicely explicates the text’s narrative, and always holds your attention over nearly three hours, especially in the second act when the drama finally reaches a boiling point.
This Bird doesn’t, however, enrich the first act’s talkiness as exposition is ladled out; one wishes there was more nuance, subtlety and a greater exploration of the subtext throughout this tale of Alexandra del Lago, a Hollywood star on the run from the premiere of what she thinks is an embarrassing flop in which she recently starred, and, Chance Wayne, the hustler/would-be movie star she’s picked up along the way at a Florida resort.
As my colleague Brad Rhines wrote of Rachel Whitman Groves (Alexandra) and Santo Panzarella (Chance), they “circle one another like caged tigers, each trying to establish an upper hand in this relationship of convenience. Their physical performances are loud and angry, fueled by different needs and wants.
Santo Panzarella and Rachel Whitman Groves in Sweet Bird of Youth (photo by Brittney Werner)
“There is chemistry between the pair, but their histrionics are too often one-dimensional, all bluster and bravado, rarely tapping into the complicated tangle of despair, desire and impending tragedy beneath all the noise”
Judy Lea Steele makes the most of her small role as a friend of Chance’s who tries to get him to save himself. The rest of the cast doesn’t really overcome Williams’ thin writing (of course, as always with Williams, some gorgeous phrasings materialize throughout the script), that fails to flesh out his stock supporting characters (bigots, bigot’s frustrated mistress, bigot’s resentful daughter), the one exception being Matthew Boese who gives his fey hotel bartender a vivid interior life.
On Steve Schepker’s set that soars to the heights of the Marigny Opera House, James Lanius’ projections of sunsets, interiors, and caged birds offer poetic lyricism and unfettered imagination. I wish we had seen more of these qualities in the rest of this Sweet Bird.
[For more info and tickets, go to https://ci.ovationtix.com/35398/production/1146601]