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'The Bodyguard' more successful at song than story

Based on the popular 1992 movie, "The Bodyguard" works more as a Whitney Houston tribute concert than sturdy stage musical.

The sleek national touring production of "The Bodyguard," now at the Hippodrome Theatre, might best be described as a Whitney Houston tribute concert disguised as a Broadway-aiming musical. With vibrant-voiced Deborah Cox leading that tribute, you've at least got a solid foundation.

Cox may not be as natural an actress as she is a singer, but she delivers the goods in the role of Rachel Marron, a pop diva dealing with ominous anonymous letters, the strange theft of a gown, and the growing sense that her life is in mortal danger. It's the role originated on screen by Houston, who starred opposite Kevin Costner in the 1992 movie.

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In fashioning a book for the musical version of "The Bodyguard," Alexander Dinelaris stuck to the main plot points involving the arrival of Frank Farmer (played by Judson Mills), a no-nonsense new security man who winds up falling for the object of his protection. The writer also beefed up the character of Nicki (Jasmin Richardson), the diva's jealous sister, and massaged a few other details.

But what Dinelaris did most effectively was dig into the complete Houston catalog to create a score with much more material than is contained on the best-selling movie soundtrack. The musical is crammed with the likes of "All the Man That I Need," "I'm Every Woman," "Greatest Love of All" and, of course, "I Will Always Love You" — as well as some less exposed songs.

The music is easily the main event, interspersed with occasional smatterings of dialogue. Some scenes seem to squeeze in only three or four spoken lines before the next rush of singing and dancing breaks out.

In particularly clunky fashion, the first attempt at preparing the plot consists of two men walking onstage in the midst of the opening production number, which subsides just long enough for them to talk quickly about a threat to Rachel and rush back off again before that information can really register. This sort of quick-jolt dialogue becomes a reiterative device, used often for an FBI agent who pops up to phone in his latest breathless bulletin about Rachel's stalker.

And when it comes to the heart of the matter, the unlikely romance between needy Rachel and stern Frank, don't expect much preparation or motivation.

A show that clocks in at a little more than two hours (including intermission) doesn't have much room for little niceties like character development. It's all about keeping things as tight and lean as the male dancers in the ensemble, who display their textbook abs at the drop of a quarter-note. But, for some reason, precious seconds are wasted before the climactic scene of Rachel performing at the Academy Awards to allow for an unfunny gay stereotype character to swoop in and out.

The elegant Cox and her unflagging vocal cords carry the bulk of the show. She may not reveal sizzling chemistry with subtle, square-jawed Mills, but there's still enough spark, especially in an amusing scene set in a karaoke bar that gives both actors a chance to shine in different ways.

Aside from intonation lapses when pushing the voice too hard, Richardson sings with considerable style; she also makes a valiant effort to flesh out the character. The rest of the supporting cast is reliable, as is the small orchestra (the volume for the music is set at bludgeon level, but amplification of dialogue is mercifully restrained).

Fluently guided by director Thea Sharrock, the production ramps up the suspense factor to particularly impressive effect and gets great mileage out of Tim Hatley's snazzy set. (The staging falters visually only toward the end, when giant, cheesy video projections appear.)

"The Bodyguard" doesn't add up to a memorable musical, but it aims wholeheartedly to entertain and, in the end, hits that target close enough.

If you go

"The Bodyguard" runs through Sunday at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $42-$158.25. Call 800-982-2787, or go to ticketmaster.com.

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