It seems apt that this epically daft new stage musical based on the 1992 film about a prickly pop diva and her gruff, tough bodyguard opens during the festive season: it ticks off a good many pantomime traits. There’s a feisty but vulnerable heroine, a broodingly handsome hero who comes to her rescue, a creepy baddy and corny gags that really would benefit from a ba-boom-tish on the drums to round them off nicely – “What the hell has gotten into her?” “Her bodyguard.” There’s even a Cinderella figure of sorts in the shape of the pop princess’s self-sacrificing sister.
Thea Sharrock makes the most of this sentimental nonsense and directs an enjoyably super-swish production with tremendous flair and not a little irony. Right from the opening effect, which has audience dawdlers scurrying for their seats, the staging zips along at enormous speed and volume, making great use of Tim Hatley’s ingenious design of sliding screens to mix cinematic projection with live action and gloss over the fact that Alexander Dinelaris’s book, adapted from Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay, delivers the story in clunky, bite-sized scenes.
It’s spectacular, stylish and delivered with panache. Heather Headley takes on the Whitney Houston role of Rachel and does so with real style: she turns in a witty, stellar performance, delivers the big numbers with zest and, most importantly, makes the film’s famous anthem “I Will Always Love You” her own. Lloyd Owen is a nice, droll presence as Frank, her craggily handsome bodyguard, while Debbie Kurup makes such a good job of her sweet sister Nicki that it becomes mystifying that Frank doesn’t fall for her.
What with all the power singing, dry ice, dazzling lights and slick costume changes, it is almost possible to ignore the fact that the plot is cheesier than a fondue and the dialogue so wooden you could start a fire with it. Characters open scenes with lines like “I’m gonna set you straight on a few things” and major plot developments whistle past as if embarrassed to stick around long enough for scrutiny. Proper motivation and character development are a distant dream: even the death of a main character seems scarcely to register, except as a flimsy excuse to get Rachel to the Oscars and into the cross-hairs of the fiendish stalker (Mark Letheren).
Still, who needs plausibility? This is a Christmas cracker of a show: harmless fun while it lasts, but hollow underneath all that snazzy packaging.