Two Musicals in Jersey: THE BODYGUARD and DADDY LONG LEGS

We’ve had jukebox musicals that have sported songs ranging from “Nice Work If You Can Get It” to “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You.” But THE BODYGUARD must be the first that’s recycled a spiritual.

To be fair, “Jesus Loves Me” shows up in the 1992 film on which this imported London musical has been based. Heathens who prefer pop power ballads needn’t worry; they’ll find plenty to like here at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey.

This is a hybrid of rock concert and musical. The hallowed conventions of the former are very much in evidence, so if you’re in the first few rows center, smoke gets in your eyes; if you’re anywhere in the house, you’ll be temporarily blinded by the very bright lights that purposely shine on you to indicate something exciting is happening.

The equally hallowed conventions of a Broadway musical are less in evidence. Very rarely do we hear a song that relates to the story; most songs are just performance pieces sung by superstar Rachael Marron (Deborah Cox) in large arenas and by her less successful sister Nikki (Jasmin Richardson) in a modest boite.

Cox has a phenomenal workload. She’s the centerpiece of 10 numbers and contributes to three others. We feel her heart roaring through such erstwhile hits as “Greatest Love of All” and, of course, “I Will Always Love You.” True, the songs do get into the sound-the-same rut; a few start out with a whisper but soon inevitably accelerate and end with sing-it-sister power. But Cox does what’s expected and is a fine actress in the book scenes, too.

Richardson does nicely by “Saving All My Love for You,” “All at Once” and three other supporting stints. What is unusual, though, is that the title character named Frank Farmer  gets only one song, and a skimpy one at that. On one level that decision does make sense for a bodyguard is all-business and not inherently musical. In fact, the one time Frank does sing occurs in a scene not in the film.

Someone’s been writing threatening letters to Rachel, which forces the diva to reluctantly agree to be protected. She hates the idea of a bodyguard watching her go out with various suitors, so she suggests that Frank take her out on a date. He doesn’t want to, because – as Laawrence Kasdan’s original screenplay and Alexander Dinelari’s libretto stresses time and time again — he’s extra-careful with her and takes every precaution to see that she remains safe.

And that brings up the show’s “This doesn’t make any sense” moment. Frank takes a semi-disguised (but not nearly disguised enough) Rachel to a karaoke bar where she challenges him to sing which he does (badly). Then he dares her to do the same, so she gets up there and lets out “I Have Nothing.” Actually, it would seem that Frank has nothing in his head, for soon everyone in the bar realizes from Rachel’s distinctive delivery just who she is. This is protection?

Well, of course Rachel and Frank wind up in bed, and after they’ve done the deed, Rachel sings that “He gives me more love than I’ve ever seen.” In one night? I’m impressed.

This one-size-fits-all lyric tendency happens with Nikki, too, who also falls for Frank: “Ever since I’ve met you, you’re the only love I’ve known.” The lyric is fine for a pop song, but here in this context we must wonder “Well, it’s only been a few weeks, so what does she expect?”

That’s the problem with jukebox musicals; songs not written for the moment don’t really serve the characters. Even Rachel admits there’s a pop-song sameness when referring to one ditty as “one of those ‘somebody’s always leaving somebody’ songs.” (In them, when the word “love” is sung, it usually isn’t pronounced “love,” but “luh-uh-uh-uh-ve.”)

There’s less who’ll-do-it mystery than there was in the film for Dinelaris makes the dots easier to connect. He’s added more humor, which is welcome. But this must be the first time in musical theater history (or maybe any other history) that a man has told a woman that his mother has died only to hear her say “No shit.”

Director Thea Sharrock keeps it moving, but has no idea how to effectively stage the climactic scene that was far more tense and less obvious in the film. The movie’s Frank (Kevin Costner) had a split-second to figure out who was about to kill  Rachel; Judson Mills has nearly a minute, and the audience is way ahead of him.

Mills has a hands in pocket ease as Frank, a taciturn if thankless role. As Rachel’s son Fletcher, Douglas Baldeo dances with an I’m-a-big-shot-and-can-you-believe-how-great-I-am attitude. Karen Bruce’s choreography suggests the TV variety shows of yore, but because we don’t have them anymore, those generic dances may suffice for theatergoers who missed Ed Sullivan, Garry Moore, et al.

And so it goes: a little concert, a little dialogue. It’s been a big hit in London, and may do just as well on Broadway.

Our other musical of the week made me wonder: when was the last time I heard the term “P.P.S.”?

Do you know the term? If you think it’s something out of URINETOWN, you’re wrong. “P.P.S.” means “Post-Post Script,” which letter-writers wrote at the end of their missives after they’d already finished the main body and had added one P.S.

I’ve never seen “P.P.S.” on an e-mail or text, so it does suggest days gone by, which is why it’s mentioned in DADDY LONG LEGS, the epistolary musical set in 1912. Paul Gordon and John Caird’s musical ran most of the last off-Broadway season; now, thanks to Michael Mastro’s direction, it’s getting a substantially better production at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick.

On Alexis Distler’s set (which is superior to the off-Broadway one, too), we meet teen orphan Jerusha Abbott, who catches the eye of an anonymous donor. He’s willing to take her out of what was then called an “orphan asylum” (which makes it sound even worse than an orphanage) and put her in a private school.

We can see Jerusha’s appeal – at least in this production. The actress who originated the role was so wide-eyed phony with an overblown sense of wonder that she thought would make her endearing. Here, thanks to Elise Vannerson, Jerusha is the real thing: a lovely lass with a backbone filled with spunk and not saccharine. We care for her when she says “What an abyss my mind is!”

It isn’t, but we like her for not pretending to be more than she is and wanting to improve herself at every turn. What delight she shows when she tells of her fascination with the Brontes and JANE EYRE. (There’s a nice inside joke, for composer-lyricist Gordon certainly admires both, given that he wrote a musical version of said property that had a decent run on Broadway in 2000-2001.)

High above the action, sitting in his office, is benefactor Jervis Pendleton (Ben Michael). He wishes to remain anonymous and won’t even answer her letters. Jerusha did one get a far-away glimpse of him and noted his long legs, which is why she’s chosen this particular name for him. Much humor comes from her assuming that he’s old enough to be her grandfather, while we see that Jervis isn’t much older than she. Her letters are so endearing that Jervis can’t help falling –

— Well, you know the rest. The writing is of such high quality that we don’t mind. (“I helped a little,” says Jervis, “but it was only money.”). Gordon’s songs sound a bit more American folk than George V England, but they’re easy on the ears.

It’s a dainty story; if we were still living in sexist times, we might have called it “a woman’s musical.” And yet, the amount of hearty masculine laughter heard on opening night showed that it’s a musical for everyone.

Of course Ben Michael and Elise Vannerson didn’t get entrance applause when the show started. Why would they? No one knows these two young performers. But here’s the thing: BOTH received SECOND-act entrance applause. THAT’s how much of an impression they’d made in the first act.

The show does go on a bit too long. At one moment, you’ll be reaching for your coat, for you’ll rightfully assume that it’s rapping up. No; there’s a good five minutes to go. Note, too, that 14 musical titles are listed in the first act and 16 in the second, which bucks savvy showmanship that a second act should be shorter than the first. This one is four minutes longer.

Still, DADDY LONG LEGS has, to use a show business term, long legs – meaning that it will be done quite a bit in the next decade or so. Granted, one reason is that it only requires an economic-pleasing two actors and three musicians. But P.S., it wouldn’t get done if it weren’t good, and P.P.S., Mastro’s production makes it seem even better.