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'Bodyguard' star Kimber Sprawl puts her spin on Whitney Houston role

Kimber Sprawl and Michael Shenefelt star in "The

Kimber Sprawl and Michael Shenefelt star in "The Bodyguard" at Gateway through July 20. Credit: Rob Seifert

WHAT "The Bodyguard

WHEN | WHERE Through July 20, The Gateway, 215 S. Country Rd., Bellport

INFO $59-$89; 631-286-1133, thegateway.org

Kimber Sprawl, who stars in "The Bodyguard" at The Gateway in Bellport, wants to be clear about one thing: This is not the Whitney Houston story. "I don't want people to walk out saying, 'Oh, she didn't remind me of Whitney,' " says the actress. 

Not that she takes playing a role so indelibly associated with the iconic singer lightly. "I've been a fan of Whitney since I was a little girl," says Sprawl, 27, who calls Houston "the best singer on the planet...she's the woman I look up to." Considering the negative publicity surrounding Houston's death in 2012, Sprawl says she feels an obligation to "honor Whitney's legacy. We have to remember that she was an incredible artist." 

The musical, which runs through July 20, is an updated version of the 1992 film, which marked Houston's first major acting role. It was a huge hit, one of the top-grossing films of the '90s, with the soundtrack selling more than 45 million copies worldwide. For Sprawl, all that presents a major challenge. Houston may have coveted this role, says Sprawl, "but it's not about her." Quick refresher: The story involves pop singer Rachel Marron, whose family hires a former Secret Service agent (Kevin Costner in the film, Michael Shenefelt at Gateway) to protect her following a series of death threats. It's a love story and a thriller. Sprawl describes Marron as a lonely woman who learns to trust again. "Even in the glory of Whitney Houston," says Sprawl, "I don't want that story to be overshadowed."  

To make that happen, she'll have to dig deep. "It's the hardest show I've ever done," says Sprawl, who despite some physical resemblance to Houston, recognized from the beginning that she could not allow her performance to veer toward impersonation. "I know I can't sing like Whitney Houston, so I'm not trying to be her, but I am trying to pay homage and do her justice."

Director Keith Andrews says he knew within the first two seconds of Sprawl's audition that he wanted her for the part. "We looked long and hard," he says, "she embodied everything we were looking for." There are not a lot of people who could handle the role, he says, noting that it's "incredibly vocally demanding, more so than almost any other musical that I've dealt with...she sings practically 75 percent of the show by herself."

SHE CAN DO IT ALL

A true triple threat, Sprawl nailed the music, and as an actress, says Andrews, "she really fit what the character called for." And, yes, the role also calls for some serious dancing. No problem for Sprawl, who started her performing career at 7, dancing with her mother and sisters in an African dance company.

"I've literally done this my whole life, I love performing," says Sprawl, who was born in Cincinnati and has resided in New York City the past five years. Living her dream, she recently toured with "The Lion King," was a swing in "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" and had her first Broadway principal role in 2018 as Jane in "The Bronx Tale."  

Most recently in New York, she had a major role in "Girl From the North Country," a searing play by Conor McPherson using the music of Bob Dylan that just announced a move to Broadway in February. She's got fingers crossed that she'll be back for that production and would love to return to the music of Dylan, a man she'd barely heard of before landing that job last minute when another actor dropped out. "I knew nothing about him," she says of Dylan, but when she listened to his songs, realized "he's a genius...the whole world should know about him because what he writes is so relevant today."  

NEVER ON BROADWAY

For now, though, it's all about "The Bodyguard" and Whitney Houston. "I'm basically a hermit," say Sprawl, who is trying to take care of herself during Gateway's intense two-and-a-half week rehearsal process. That includes resting her voice, hydrating and whenever she can, staying in her room that she keeps a toasty 75 degrees.  

On a recent afternoon, she and the rest of the cast rehearsed the powerful if grueling opening number "Queen of the Night," a song written for the movie. The high-energy dance number begs the question: Why did this musical, around since 2012 when it was first performed in London, never make it to Broadway? "The popular appeal is there," says Andrews, noting the many variables that can keep a show out from reaching the Great White Way. "Broadway's a funny place," he says, noting that it could have been anything from the lack of an appropriate theater, to timing of the creative team, to not having the right person attached (as with Tina Fey in "Mean Girls.")

After touring the United States with Deborah Cox in the lead, the show has only recently become available for regional theaters (Gateway is doing the second regional production) and that could well revive interest, Andrews notes. "People forget how popular the movie was," he says. "Whitney Houston at the absolute top of her game, Kevin Costner at the top of his game...they were wonderful in it."

Sprawl most certainly hopes the same will be said of her performance. "I"m playing a dream role...doing things that I've never done before, that challenge me."  Almost as if giving herself a pep talk, she says, "I got the role for a reason."  Now, she concludes,  "I just have to bring out what they saw in me."

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