Deborah Cox steps into Whitney Houston‘s shoes in the Paper Mill Playhouse musical “The Bodyguard,” opening Nov. 25

THEATER

THEATER

THE BODYGUARD

North American premiere of the musical based on the Lawrence Kasdan film, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, Tuesday through Jan. 1.

Book by Alexander Dinelaris, direction by Thea Sharrock, choreography by Karen Bruce.

With Deborah Cox, Judson Mills, Alex Corrado, Charles Gray, Jonathan Hadley, Jorge Paniagua, Jasmin Richardson, Douglas Baldeo, Kevelin B. Jones III.

Schedule: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 1:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets start at $32. or papermill.org.

If past is prologue, then multi-platinum singer Deborah Cox might have had an inkling that she would star in the Paper Mill Playhouse production of “The Bodyguard” back in 2000.

That was the year she released a duet with Whitney Houston, star of the 1992 movie “The Bodyguard.” The name of the song? “Same Script, Different Cast.”

“It is prophetic,” says Cox, who this month will take on Houston‘s old role of Rachel Marron, the superstar singer shadowed by a stalker, who finds protection and unexpected romance with the ex-Secret Service agent (Judson Mills, in the role played in the film by Kevin Costner) who is hired to keep her safe.

To be strictly accurate, while it is a different cast, it isn‘t quite the same script.

The original screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan has been reworked by librettist Alexander Dinelaris, partly to expand the role of Rachel Marron. But the key news, for “Bodyguard” fans, is that the songs they remember from the best-selling movie soundtrack are all there — including “I Will Always Love You,” “I‘m Every Woman,” “I Have Nothing,” “Run to You” and Queen of the Night.”

“It‘s big shoes to fill,” says Cox, herself a Grammy nominee. “These songs are iconic, and people have expectations. I think that we want to represent this show, this property, as best we can, so there‘s a lot at stake. And also, we want to tell a story. It‘s not a jukebox musical. This is a real piece of art, of theater. It‘s a compelling story. This woman, who‘s trying to juggle it all, she‘s in love, you want to see them together, but there‘s also a love triangle involved for her. There‘s so many layers to it.”

“The Bodyguard” musical, in development since 2006, had the blessing of the late Whitney Houston, and had its world premiere (Grammy-winner Heather Headley played the lead) in London‘s West End in 2012 – the year of Houston‘s tragic and unexpected death. It‘s had several productions since, in the Netherlands, Germany and other places. But in Deborah Cox, it has a star who is in some ways uniquely fitted to this role. The plan is to take this production on a national tour beginning next year.

“Deborah Cox is an R&B Grammy nominated artist on her own,” says Paper Mill‘s producing artistic director, Mark S. Hoebee. “She absolutely is a star.”

Cox, born in Toronto, was a backup vocalist for Céline Dion before heading to the U.S. and striking out on her own. In 1995 she was signed to Arista Records, and in 1998 career lightning struck. Her single “Nobody‘s Supposed to Be Here” from her album “One Wish” spent 14 weeks as a No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop charts – a record-breaking run that wasn‘t topped for almost eight years.

“When I recorded the song I knew there was something special about it,” Cox says. “It was so different, and it resonated with people because it was a very hip-hop driven chart at the time. That song just came smack dab in the middle of that, and just stayed on the chart … Generally, if it hits No. 1, I‘m good with it.”

She had other hits: “Absolutely Not,” “House Is Not a Home,” “Did You Ever Love Me.” Her songs started appearing on soundtracks: “Dr. Dolittle 2,” “Akeelah and the Bee,” “Hotel Rwanda.” Meanwhile, she began to score as an actor as well as singer: in Broadway‘s “Aida” (2002) and in the 2012 revival of “Jekyll & Hyde.”

“The thing about it is, she absolutely has the goods to deliver the music, but she‘s also an actress,” Hoebee says. “Really good. She was incredible in that revival of ‘Jekyll & Hyde.‘ So I think people who know her just as a concert artist are going to be surprised at how good she is.”

On top of all this, there‘s her personal connection to Houston — which continued after the singer‘s death, when Cox provided the vocals for the 2015 Lifetime Houston TV biopic, “Whitney.” For “The Bodyguard,” in Houston‘s absence, she has a certain duty to represent.

“She was just warm, wonderful,” Cox remembers. “There was a sisterhood that we had. I live in Miami, so whenever she came or was there, we‘d hang out. She gave me a lot of great advice about the industry. She was like a bigger sister. We all need a mentor in this business. She was one of them.”

At the same time, Cox makes clear that her job isn‘t to channel Houston. For that matter, it‘s not to be Cox. She was hired as an actor. Her job is to serve the story, and the character.

“I always approach things very specifically,” she says. “For this, it‘s a very specific hat on. As Rachel, I don‘t infuse Deborah Cox, I don‘t infuse Whitney, I just bring my own spirit to Rachel Marron. And I create something very different. I haven‘t seen the original production. I don‘t know what they did or how they staged it. But I love this process [at Paper Mill], which is being able to create a new character.”

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