An Officer and A Gentleman - The Musical

Based on the book by Douglas Day Stewart and Sharleen Cooper Cohen
Broadway Baby Productions with Curve Theatre, Leicester
Bristol Hippodrome

Emma Williams and Jonny Fines as Paula and Zack Credit: Manuel Harlan
Emma Williams and Jonny Fines as Paula and Zack Credit: Manuel Harlan
Ray Shell and Jonny Fines in training Credit: Manuel Harlan

When the film An Officer and A Gentleman was released in 1982, it grossed over $125m at the box office and become the third highest grossing film of that year, surpassed only by ET: The Extra-Terrestrial and Tootsie.

In addition to its financial success, An Officer and A Gentleman is one of those few movies that leave us with indelible memories that last for decades and then get handed down through generations. So, when Richard Gere scoops up Debra Winger in the film’s final scene, accompanied by the song "Up Where We Belong", it joined the canon of great movie moments that are so iconic they are borrowed, stolen or repeated in other formats.

So even if today’s younger generation didn’t see the original movie version, they might still understand the emotional weight the original image carried. Even The Simpsons recreated the scene, with Homer whisking Marge into his arms to the same musical accompaniment, for their own emotional reconciliation.

With the commercial success of the film and such a powerful cultural legacy, it would only be a matter of time before Douglas Day Stewart, co-writer of the original, developed a version for a stage musical. Keeping this stage version firmly grounded in the '80s, with newsreels of Ronald Reagan as a backdrop while the audience take their seats and the cast, faithfully costumed in peg leg jeans and the big hair of the era, we are treated to a juke-box journey through some of the biggest hits of that decade. "In the Navy (Army) Now", "Material Girl", "I want to Know What Love Is", "Girls Just Want to Have Fun", "Kids in America", "The Final Countdown" and many more punctuate and support the storyline which mirrors the original.

For those who don’t know it, the story starts with the latest recruits for the navy jet pilot programme arriving at their training base in a small, poor, blue-collar town dominated by the paper factory where many of the girls in the town work. The drill sergeant warns the new arrivals that the local girls want to marry the recruits as a way out of their own dreary circumstances.

With this in the back of their minds, cadets Zack and Sid encounter local girls Paula and Lynette. The characters all have baggage of their own and what develops between Zack and Paula contrasts with the relationship between Sid and Lynette. Zack, brought up by a brutal and distanced father, and Paula, brought up by a mother abandoned by her father, are both determined to make their own way out of their circumstances. Sid, haunted by his brother’s early death, has fallen into the military to take his place, but would rather play baseball. Lynette may really love Sid, or is he just a ticket out of small-town America?

Supported by Ray Shell as Foley, the brutal drill sergeant, Ian McIntosh as Sid, Jessica Daley as Lynette and Rachel Stanley as Paula’s mother and a large cast, leads Emma Williams and Jonny Fines, taking Winger and Gere’s roles of Paula and Zack, blast through the hits, but sadly are often drowned out by the fuller blast of the recorded musical soundtrack. Despite this, the songs are well selected for their lyrical message as well as providing a great nostalgia fix for the audience.

What does not work, however, is the weight of the crucial emotional thread running through the story. As well as a romance, this story is also a melodrama, people struggling with their own emotions, trying to escape their circumstances, and this just doesn’t come through strongly enough to deliver the impact of either the story’s tragic shock or the romantic finale.

Michael Taylor’s fluid set means scene changes from training station to paper factory, from bar to motel all work smoothly, the grey backdrop providing an effective background for the brutal drab monotony of factory life for the townsfolk or a screen to project other moments. Kate Prince’s choreography for the large cast works well with the exception of the slack fight scene between Foley and Zack which literally and figuratively lacks punch in what should be an important moment.

It has to be said these shortcomings hardly seemed to bother the hugely grateful audience. From the beginning, the entire evening seemed pregnant with anticipation for that final scene, which the show delivers, with goosebumps.

Reviewer: Joan Phillips

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