I hope life treats you kind. And I hope you have all you’ve dreamed of. And I wish to you joy and happiness— but above all this, I wish you— to go and see the stellar regional premiere production of The Bodyguard at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia. Directed by Mark Minnick and Toby Orenstein with Musical Direction by Ross Scott Rawlings and Choreography by Shalyce Hemby, the iconic 90’s film turned stage musical finds its footing with a true focus on the story in the well-seasoned hands of Mark Minnick, Toby Orenstein and the company at Toby’s Dinner Theatre.
It’s all the rage at present for the iconic music legends— bands and solo artists alike— of the 90’s to tour in this end of the 20-teens time. Bringing the subtle hints of modernity to the show— smart phones and Instagram references— whilst still obeying the morays of the 90’s aesthetic is what keeps this show feeling fresh. Mining radiant nuggets of story from a thinly articulated libretto (by Alexander Dinelaris based on the Warner Bros. Film with screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) is the transformative magic that directors Mark Minnick and Toby Orenstein perform over The Bodyguard to deliver a spectacular production and evening’s worth of uplifting entertainment. Minnick and Orenstein have unearthed the minutia of the story— which to be explicitly clear is all but non-existent as the musical itself trades on the notion of “being the music of Whitney Houston”— and brought it to the forefront. Their combined veteran experience with storytelling in the round has allowed for a total metamorphosis of The Bodyguard, making it a believable, emotionally invested story with the underlying support of Whitney Houston’s music, rather than a loose jukebox-style musical banking on those iconic numbers to deliver it.
The character connections lead the forefront of this story charge; Minnick and Orenstein have worked tirelessly to develop concrete relationships between the characters, and use their vast experience and understanding of the uniquely intimate in-the-round spacing that Toby’s venue provides to bring those emotional connections right to the audiences’ faces. It’s no longer just a gliding path of Whitney Houston song one to the next, but there are real and raw human connections happening— Rachel Marron to her sister Nicki Marron, Frank Fletcher (the titular character) to Fletcher Marron (Rachel’s son) and so forth. Even the minor characters— like the karaoke DJ (Sylvern Groomes) in that brief but grounding moment shared with Frank Farmer— have strong connections to the narrative trajectory of this production.
Resident Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins keeps the settings simplistic, but the audience is never left yearning for something more impressive. The furnishings, wheeled in and out with precision to create Rachel’s estate, various nightclubs and performance stages, even the rustic lakeside house (with hearty wooden rocking chairs that have never before been featured in the Toby’s canonical repertoire of furniture), all give the audience just enough to demarcate the spatial location so that they can focus on what’s happening in these scenes, rather than be bogged down in the gravity of a cumbersome set. Hopkins seizes his moment to shine with the show’s lighting design. The larger, up-tempo dance numbers authentically capture that vibrant 90’s pop concert vibe with blinking color strobes all throughout. But Hopkins most impressive lighting feature is the sharp, LED bar frames that light up each of the theatre’s four entrances to the stage. This is particularly effective during the scene at the Oscar’s where all four of the entrances and their overhang platforms are outlined in Oscar-gold. And the effect created every time the Stalker is experienced— isolated in his own freakishly creepy bubble (on a platform above one of the entrances) shrouded in a slight mist and harsh red-bar lighting, instills the fear the audience needs to feel in this show.
It’s not going to be an effective 90’s themed pop concert type atmosphere without a lot of glimmer and sparkle in the sartorial selection. Costume Designer Janine Sunday has pulled together a fine selection of outfits that draw the focus of the 90’s fashion feast of the pop world to the audience’s attention. Subtle drapes and wraps or other accessories aid in the quick changes that often befall the Rachel Marron character, while giving her a seemingly different look. Sunday really whips up some high-end fashion pieces for the Oscar’s scene as well. And the brilliant blue and sparkly theme that weaves its way all throughout the finale-number costumes is just the burst of color needed to end the show with good vibrations (though as everyone else has sparkles and sequins/glimmer shimmer fabric in their final costume, it would have been a thorough touch to ensure that the FBI agent’s shirt— though the lettering is now blue— also had some glitter and shimmer.) Sunday’s use of the 90’s fashion influence is clear in every step of her costume work; everything from the throwback styles featured on the ensemble dancers during that rehearsal number to some of the more outlandish pleather and lamé costumes used during the performance routines.
Amplifying the impressive work of Mark Minnick, Toby Orenstein, David A. Hopkins, and Janine Sunday is choreographer Shalyce Hemby. “Queen of the Night” sets the evening’s flavor of choreography and the dance intensity only blossoms as the show progresses. Hemby focuses on high-intensity group movement, mimicking the style of those popular music videos from pop artists of the 90’s. There’s a lot of arm flares and floor-drop-touches that harken back to when dancers actually danced, rather than appeared in skin-tight nothingness and simply gyrate as they do in more modern-day music videos. Hemby features a backup female dance core— Rachel Kemp, Alexis Krey, and Patricia Targete— throughout some of the more driven musical numbers and works in a dance break where Quadry Brown can show off his backflips. The entirety of the dancing ensemble (Quadry Brown, Simone Brown, Crystal Freeman, Sylvern Groomes, Rachel Kemp, Alexis Krey, David Singleton, Patricia Targete, James Toler, Brook Urquhart, Carl Williams, Tara Yates-Reeves) brings consistent high-octane energy throughout all of their dance routines, ensuring that the show moves you and that the audience feels the heat all night long.
Musical Director Ross Scott Rawlings takes those same ensemble members and draws their vocal strengths together as back-up singers, group harmonizers, and an overall well-balanced sounding company when it comes to this performance. Conducting the pit with seasoned ease from his hidden high perch, Rawlings ensures that tempos are consistent and that the music follows the performers for those elongated moments where the two leading ladies really get an opportunity to showcase their intense, prolonged belting capabilities.
With talented ensemble members, its no wonder there are so many popping up in little cameo roles all throughout the production. Directors Mark Minnick and Toby Orenstein, in addition to understanding the space and creating seamless transitions from one moment to the next— which not only keeps the show moving naturally but it helps develop a proper narrative flow for the story— the pair have fitted the 21 performers into exactly the right places. Brook Urquhart has a snappy moment introduced briefly as Rachel’s choreographer and you can feel the stresses of his job as such radiating outward from the way he physically presents his body. David Bosley-Reynolds serves as Tony, Rachel’s hired security hand of eight years, making the character the ultimate hybrid of street thug and Italian mafia turned softie. Jeffery Shankle is the no-nonsense FBI consult Ray Court, who keeps a level head even when delivering difficult details about the Rachel Marron Stalker.
Further character development is experienced with Bill Devaney (DeCarlo Raspberry) and Sy Spector (David James), who from a libretto standpoint are easily dismissed as side-character constructs used to fill the space around Rachel Marron. Not so in the Toby’s Dinner Theatre Production. Raspberry, who is known for his outrageous comedy roles, showcases his versatility as the down-to-earth Bill Devaney, putting a compassionate presence forward every time he interacts with another person, whether it’s Rachel when he’s trying to reason with her or Frank when he’s trying to negotiate with him. James, as the pushy publicist Sy Spector, finds a balance in what could easily become an over-the-top theatrical caricature of the flamboyant publicist in the biz. James finds little moments— like the exchange of pictures in a memory box— to connect with Rachel Marron as a human being, on a person to person level rather than just as the highly-strung publicist to his diva client.
Possibly too cute for words, at this performance Chase Reaves takes on the role of Fletcher, Rachel Marron’s son. He is quiet in his characterization but sweet and present. His interactions with Frank Farmer (The Bodyguard) are truly moments of bonding that just set the heart alight. It’s easy to see how naturally Reaves is on stage, despite this show being his Toby’s debut. There’s even a feature moment where Reaves gets to sing— as Rachel Marron says “from the belly, child!”— and his voice is delightful. When adding that blissfully angelic sound to “Jesus Loves Me” or even when just fooling around with Frank talking about cars, Reaves is the perfect young performer for this role.
It’s by the good graces of the directors that Justin Calhoun gets to showcase his buttery smooth singing vocals at the very end of the show during the “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” finale-ultimo style curtain call routine, because as The Stalker, Calhoun says precious little and sings not a word. Slipping into the scary skin of this frightening fiend, Calhoun gives the audience the willies, the shivers, the creeps, and appropriately puts everyone on edge. Partial credit must be given to David Hopkins and the Minnick-Orenstein directorial duo because of the red-light and shadows that they use to enhance the unsettling mystery of the character, but the ferociously cut physique with guns for miles is all Justin Calhoun. And he is subtle in his stage presence. The pending sense of ineffable doom creeps into the scene whenever he’s about and there is a shocking moment where Calhoun’s Stalker transcends space in a blink from level of the stage to the next and it shoots terror directly up the spine. Even his quick-handed handling of the scene with Fletcher nearly stops the heart.
Despite the initial standoffish nature of the character of The Bodyguard, Frank Farmer in the seasoned and well-practiced hands of Russell Sunday, is instantly human more so than the movie or any previous incarnation. Sunday brings a deep, emotional connectivity to the role, initially witnessed when he first meets Fletcher. There is a paternal bond that just clicks the moment they start chatting. Sunday, who fits the build as a bodyguard, finds subtle ways to express the deep fathoms of the character’s emotions, which don’t always readily bubble to the surface, but are there guiding his choices throughout the performance. When singing the only number scripted for the character, “I Will Always Love You” there is a sweet and honest sentimentality behind his sound, as well as smooth, warmed vocals. The way Sunday stalks through the scene at The Mayan puts everyone on edge, so much so that you can feel your heart racing right along with his, desperately looking for The Stalker. Sunday has a clearly defined chemistry that teeters his character to the edge of his sanity, when interacting with Rachel Marron.
Always living in her sister’s shadow and desperately wanting to know, just once, what it would be like to be Rachel Marron, Nicki Marron (Samantha McEwen Deininger) is no shrinking violet in this production. Deininger’s first musical number pops up at The Edison Lounge, where she slips effortlessly into a smoldering lounge-lizard sound for “Saving All My Love For You.” Deininger strikes the perfect balance between sweet high notes and low blasted belt notes, giving the role her emotional all during every moment, whether she’s singing or not. The perfectly blocked duet, which features Deininger backed against sister Rachel Marron (Ashley Johnson-Moore), “Run to You” delivers an unstoppable surge of emotional strength and vocal clarity from both performers, allowing Deininger to hold her own against the show’s principal leading lady. Her follow-up solo, “All At Once” propels Deininger’s character deep into the somber pit of sorrow, letting the painful feeling of heartache ring throughout every word she sings.
Ashley Johnson-Moore serves up a fiery show’s worth of premiere divatude with the vocal chops to back the persona. As Rachel Marron she is ferocious and unafraid to put her voice out there. This is a striking juxtaposition for the fear that the character develops as the production progresses. The emotional roller coaster that is ever-present in Johnson-Moore’s portrayal is stellar, pulling the audience along for her intense ride right from that extremely intense opening show-stopper, “Queen of the Night” where Johnson-Moore and her back-up dancers strut their way all throughout the house and all over the stage. When an lavish pop-star costume makes an appearance, Johnson-Moore doesn’t just wear it, she lives in it, making it a part of the performing persona that is Rachel Marron. The difference that Johnson-Moore showcases between the performing Rachel Marron and Rachel Marron in her off-stage life is dynamic and impressive. With pristine vocal control she is channeling the essence and spirit of Whitney Houston into these numbers while simultaneously making them her own. “One Moment In Time” is filled with wild sororal passion while “All The Man That I Need” displays a different emotional need. The versatility of emotions, combined with Johnson-Moore’s powerhouse vocal capabilities, seem to know no bounds in this production. “I Will Always Love You” is the perfect penultimate cap to the evening, with Johnson-Moore belting her heart and soul out through to the end of the number.
You will want to dance with somebody from the show before its all said and done. And you will feel like you’re a living part of Rachel Marron’s story, sharing her hopes, dreams, and fears every step of the way with this sensational production of The Bodyguard at Toby’s Dinner Theatre this fall. Tickets are already moving fast, do not wait to procure yours!
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission