An Officer and a Gentleman is a romantic musical that will sweep you off your feet without forcing you to wallow in too much mushy sentiment.
The classic 1982 film has been rebooted as a pacey jukebox musical that is simultaneously corny and gritty. Lifting audience members up with exuberant performances of more than twenty chart hits from the Eighties, the simple story follows the exploits of bad boy US Navy officer trainee Zack Mayo and his “will they, won’t they?” relationship with local factory girl Paula Pokrifki.
While the narrative is a little slow to really take off, this lightweight chick flick exploration of how ordinary people endeavour to escape deep-rooted inner demons and daily drudgery undoubtedly benefits from being paired with punchy period pop music. A score consisting of such a wide selection of half-decent tunes is surely guaranteed to have spectators of all ages tapping their feet in recognition and readily engaging with the characters’ experiences. It certainly worked for me and I am not familiar with the Oscar-winning movie at all!
In my defence, I was not even a twinkle in my dad’s eye when An Officer and a Gentleman – starring Hollywood stalwart Richard Gere as troubled Zack and Debra Swinger as plucky Paula – was playing in cinemas, released on VHS or even broadcast on television with any fanfare. Still, I am familiar with the famous final scene. Here, a smartly suited and booted Gere marches into the factory, sweeps Swinger up in his arms and carries her off and up to where they belong. It is a legendary movie moment. Extremely cheesy, mind, but iconic all the same.
The plot is written by American screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart and is inspired by his own personal experiences as a navy officer cadet. It’s a predictable yet timeless tale with just enough going on to retain our interest throughout. Troubled Zachary “Zack” Mayo is one of the new recruits in a navy training college and he is not averse to bending rules and cutting corners. The drill instructor, Sergeant Emil Foley, seems to take great pleasure in humiliating the recruits in the hope that they will DOR (drop on request) – voluntarily relinquishing their place in the tough thirteen-week training programme. Zack becomes friends with his fellow candidates but has too much swagger for Foley, who believes Zack lacks motivation and is not a team player.
Outside of the college, Zack begins a romantic relationship with local paper factory girl Paula Pokrifki and his training buddy, Sid, becomes involved with Paula’s co-worker Lynette Pomeroy. As Foley increases the pressure on the recruits, and tragedy befalls Sid, Zack discovers what love is and learns the importance of friendship and having the courage to be yourself. It is only then that he can truly become an officer and a gentleman.
Events unfold to a soundtrack of Eighties classics including ‘It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World’, ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’, ‘I Was Made For Loving You’, ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’, ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’, ‘Material Girl’ and ‘The Final Countdown’. At times it is a bit like we have tuned in to Magic radio or stumbled unwittingly into a karaoke bar but the cast sing so well that it works!
Jonny Fines (who performed at Milton Keynes Theatre in the 2016 production of Annie) is brooding as trainee pilot Zack Mayo. The character is a loner, and a bit of a loser, but Fines’ engaging portrayal ensures that this lovable rogue has just enough going for him that the audience is on his side. It probably helps that Fines goes shirtless at times and shows off steely abdominal strength when Mayo is being put through his paces by Sergeant Emil Foley (an authoritative Ray Shell) but the singing, dancing and acting boxes are all ticked too.
As good as Fines is, it is the women in the cast who really steal the show. Emma Williams is excellent as Zack’s sweetheart, Paula. Tender yet tenacious, she is equally compelling crooning her way through heartfelt solo ‘Alone’ as she is belting out ‘It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ with the rest of the terrific women in the cast.
Choreographer Kate Prince uses stylised marching, skipping, jumping, lunging, squatting and climbing to showcase the growing athleticism of the navy recruits when they are engaged in their training drills. Elsewhere, opportunities for the recruits to leave base and kick up their heels in the bar (where we are treated to a slightly random rendition of Bon Jovi hit ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ as the characters’ karaoke choice) and enjoy caring embraces with their sweethearts utilise more pedestrian movement ideas. It all works sufficiently well but the lack of full-on dance routines does sometimes leave scenes feeling strangely low on energy.
The sets are used to great effect, with impressive video projections from digital theatre specialist Douglas O’Connell. His expertise sees flickering flashbacks flying onto the backdrop, and creates impressive waves lapping at the shore on the horizon during the amorous beach motel scenes.
In short, An Officer and a Gentleman is an engaging musical that celebrates triumph over adversity without being sickly sweet or wildly whimsical. Expect a theatrical experience that will make your summer sizzle with romance and realism.
Age Guidance 12+ (contains themes of an adult nature and strong language).
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.