An Officer and a Gentleman the Musical has its opening week at The Playhouse Theatre Edinburgh this week (Mon 2 to Sat 7 July), bringing to stage after over 35 years, the story that so many people simply fell in love with when the 1982 film of the same name starring Richard Gere, Debra Winger, and Louis Gossett Jr. was originally released. The film was both a major artistic and commercial success (grossing $130 million against a $6 million budget), firmly establishing Richard Gere in the “superstar” elite and also having huge record chart success with "Up Where We Belong" performed by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes.
On paper, everything is set for this musical to be a huge success. The list of creatives involved in this project is impressive and includes original book writer and film executive Douglas Day Stewart. The story is based on Douglas Day Stewart’s own experiences at the Aviation Officer Candidate School that our lead character Zack Mayo attends in his dream to become a US Navy Pilot. Here, however, the similarities stop. This is not the film and, despite the fact that the audience tonight was made up largely of ladies of a certain age who obviously have wonderful memories of the original film, and were, to be honest applauding all evening, this is simply another “juke box” musical that sadly fails for me to live up to its promise of greatness.
Part of the problem for me is not the cast, but the format. Despite the remnants of a serious social drama script trying at times to surface above everything else, the vast bulk of the dialogue is in the form of popular songs of the 1980s shoehorned into spaces to provide that missing script from their lyrics. Sometimes it works, other times it is just not an appropriate use of the song. Taking this approach was always going to be problematic as it rarely works out well. The list of “hit songs” from the period is impressive – “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”, “I Want To Know What Love is”, “St Elmo’s Fire”, “Livin’ on A Prayer”, “Material Girl”, “Heart Of Glass” and many more, and of course "Up Where We Belong". Although for the most part the songs are well performed by our cast, this does leave me asking the question of “what is the target audience for this show”. If it is for those old enough to remember these songs (like the movie) from first time round then it is obviously a device that is working well. If, however, there is hope of introducing “An Officer and a Gentleman” to a new and younger audience then I doubt if these songs mean much, or anything at all, to younger audiences. I would have far preferred some original songs to be in this production, and the juke box in the bar that everyone frequents could so easily (assuming copyright approval) have played the original songs by the original artists at times. To be honest, I think the original film had better music and songs in it that suited the story line far better.
The cast here are all more than capable performers, and Jonny Fines (Zack Mayo) and Emma Williams (Paula Pokrifki) work their way impressively through some classic songs and handle some of the more dramatic moments well, but there is just no feeling of a great love story forming between either of them on stage. Fellow officer in training Sid Worley and his “romance” with Lynette Pomeroy is also handled well by Ian McIntosh and Jessica Daley. The story line, however, with its constant use of lyrics for dialogue gives no one any real opportunity to really bring this potentially realistic social drama to life. As in the film though, drill instructor, Marine Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley played by Ray Shell gets some of the more memorable lines and steals much of the show.
An Officer and a Gentleman had huge potential, but what has remained after the transition from film to stage is often stereotypes singing songs of the ‘80s.
There are some interesting devices used on set. Zack’s childhood memories projected behind us is interesting, and the austere set does work for the military scenes (not so well for some of the others), and a metal staircase to nowhere is over-used. The fight scenes could have been far better handled, but that iconic final scene from the movie simply had to be there, and it still is. Will someone though please iron some of the creases out of what should be “razor sharp” pressed white military best uniforms.
The film captured somehow the spirit of the time and the hopes and dreams of millions of people who found a connection with the characters. Sadly, those times have gone and the world has changed in many areas beyond the recognition of anyone who was around for the 1980s. This always was a very American story, and perhaps in America the continual flag waving and bravado of the American military machine may still be this popular, but in Europe and elsewhere in the world, perhaps not.
If “An Officer and a Gentleman” proves anything though it is that the film made Richard Gere a world wide superstar and that Richard Gere certainly was a large part of the magic that made the film a global success.
Maybe I was in the minority tonight though as the reaction from the audience was definitely on the very positive side for the most part for those old enough (and maybe not so old) to be re-visiting some of their favourite music and film characters in one show. It also has to be said that there was a standing ovation at the end too, and you don’t get many of them in Edinburgh. Still for me though a show that is definitely in the shadow of its original source material.
Review by Tom King