Performing the lead role in a musical is always a challenge for a singer, especially while touring through a frigid North American winter.
In the case of “The Bodyguard,” which runs Jan. 16-28 at the Fisher Theatre, the bar is especially high. The musical, after all, is based upon the 1992 Whitney Houston-Kevin Costner film, and the songs the lead character sings were chosen to showcase Houston’s amazing, octave-spanning range.
But Deborah Cox is up for it. The 43-year-old singer/actress brings her own remarkable vocal gifts to such numbers as “I Will Always Love You,” “Queen of the Night,” “How Will I Know,” “One Moment in Time” and “Run to You.”
Cox’s voice has a similar vocal timbre to Houston’s, but she also has the advantage of a steady personal life. The Toronto native is still married to her high school sweetheart/personal manager Laschelles Stephens (they have three children), and a dogged work ethic has enabled her to stay focused and healthy despite the demands of a touring musical.
“What’s been good about the (Bodyguard) schedule the second time around is, we had a few weeks off, and so going into the third leg of the tour, we have a few more breaks,” said Cox during a telephone interview. “The breaks help me to maintain good health while we’re still touring.”
“The Bodyguard” is the story of a famous singer — Rachel Marron — and her relationship with Frank Farmer, a bodyguard hired to protect her after she has trouble with a stalker. Farmer and Marron clash over the need for her to be more careful, but they also develop a romantic relationship despite that. Farmer is warned by his bosses that the relationship is unprofessional, and he breaks it off. Drama, of course, ensues. Marron’s sister, Nicki, plays an important role in the romantic drama, as does Marron’s young son, Fletcher.
Her role in “The Bodyguard” was a star-making vehicle for Houston, vaulting her into superstardom almost instantly, helped by her palpable on-screen chemistry with Costner, who played Farmer. But if anyone was born to take the role of Marron onto the musical stage, it’s Cox.
As a young performer, she was inspired by Houston, and like her, was signed to Arista Records by Clive Davis (Davis even alerted Cox that “The Bodyguard” was becoming a musical, and she should go for it).
As a recording artist, Cox racked up R&B hits, including “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” in 1998. But unlike Houston, she also had a history in musical theater from a young age. Before she was a recording artist, Cox was performing in “The Wizard of Oz” and “Mama, I Want to Sing!”
Thus, she approached the role of Rachel as a dramatic actress and was determined, despite her ability to sound like Houston, not to rely on that as a gimmick.
“That was the challenge, trying to figure out what Rachel’s voice was going to be,” Cox said. “I wanted to make sure that I did not try to recreate or become a caricature of what the film was, that was not my intent at all. Now that I’ve gotten to do the show so many times, I found Rachel’s voice. I found her personality and who she is.”
The film differs from the stage version in some ways. The character of Nicki, Rachel’s sister, is more front and center, as is a romantic triangle involving the two sisters and Farmer. The fact that the story is told through song changes the dynamic considerably.
“I had to make sure it wasn’t me as a recording artist (singing), but me finding Rachel’s voice and telling her story and her true feelings, how she felt about Frank and how she feels about Fletcher, and being a mother, and his protector, and letting her guard down,” Cox said. “All the stories have to be told through song.”
The actress describes the stage production as “more of a romantic thriller,” too.
“There are a lot of moments where you’re at the edge of your seat, and the stalker is more prevalent than in the film,” she said.
Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to The Detroit News. Contact her at susanwhitall.com
3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit
8 p.m. Tues.– Sat.; 7:30 p.m. Sun.; 2 p.m. Sat., Sun. matinees
(Note: Cox will not perform Sat. matinee or Sun. evening performances)
Tickets: Call (313) 872-1000 or Broadway in Detroit online, broadwayindetroit.com/shows/the-bodyguard. Charge tickets by phone via Ticketmaster at (800) 982-2787 or ticketmaster.com.