Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Into this landscape, director Taylor Hackford's movie An Officer and a Gentleman unleashed Zack Mayo, a headstrong young man whose life has been unkind to him. Zack is determined to realize his dream to become an aircraft pilot by way of the U.S. Navy's extremely rigorous Aviation Officer Candidate School. His stated reason: "I want to fly." The movie, released in 1982, hit a chord with a large public, drawing folks to cheer this unlikely hero's success in spite of it all, including the hostility of his merciless training officer. Along the way, he wins the heart of a local factory girl, his success promising a way up from life's lower rungs for both of them–landing them "Up Where We Belong," to quote the title of the film's Oscar winning song. It was a decent movie, and a good measure of the nation's pulse at that moment.
The musical version, first launched in the United Kingdom, recently played at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts for a four-day run. A jukebox musical without an original score, it uses a pile of pop songs from the period. As a jukebox musical that shoe-horns in songs that seem to contribute to the plot or reflect on a character's development, it is a mixed bag. Some of the twenty songs included do the job nicely: Hold on to Your Dream," "Never Surrender," "Every Girl in this Town," "I Can't Hold Back," "Lost In Your Eyes," "Right Here Waiting," "Precious Pain," "Hold On," and, yes, "Up Where We Belong" work well to at least support, if not actually move, the narrative. Melissa Ethridge's "Precious Pain" has an especially strong impact. But this is fewer than half the songs. Most of the others come across as background music, while a few, like "Venus," actually slow things down.
Douglas Day Stewart, a prolific screenwriter, wrote the original screenplay for the movie, drawing on his own experiences as a Naval Officer Candidate dating a local factory girl in 1965. Stewart worked on the musical's book with Sharleen Cooper Cohen and Dick Scanlan, who also directs this production. Stewart and company have made some interesting changes from the film. For one, Zack's love interest, Paula, now has submerged ambitions to be a lawyer. Back in 1982, the movie Paula's ambition was to marry Zack–at least nothing more was mentioned. A secondary relationship between an Officer Candidate named Sid and Paula's friend Lynette is altered by making Sid a Black man, adding the challenge of a mixed race relationship, as well as how racism made life more difficult for Black officers. These changes perhaps are thought to bring the show in line with audiences' current interests by addressing racism and women's empowerment head on. Perhaps more notable, though more subtle, Zack Mayo is now depicted as the brightest and most physically capable of the students in his class. This somewhat diminishes his status as an underdog among his peers, making it a harder–or perhaps, more aptly, less important–to invest in rooting for him. We never have cause to doubt that he'll make it.
Scanlan's direction serves the show well enough to clearly deliver its story, including a couple of flashbacks that depict Zack's difficult youth. The show shifts smoothly from one setting to another, with action sometimes going in two or more simultaneously. It's well paced well, moving through its narrative without ever losing steam, clear to the last scene which duplicates the film's iconic final image.
Patricia Wilcox contributes choreography that veers towards athleticism as it demonstrates the candidates in their training routines. Pleasing as these choreographed workouts are to view, the show faces a pitfall by its very nature. This hard-working cast goes through the well synchronized movements as we expect to see dancers on stage–making it look effortless–so we lose a sense that these men (and one woman) are doing grueling work, that some will be less adept than others, and that some might not make it though. Its artifice shows. Sure, we can enjoy dancers pretending to be in military training, but it pulls us away from feeling a sense of their struggle to make it. The single case where the show zeroes in on a candidate's struggle is the lone woman, Seegar, who repeatedly fails to surmount a climbing wall. Yet, when she finally succeeds, it seems as if she gets over the wall that last time because the script told her to, and not because she did anything different.
Whatever weaknesses the show may have, the (non-Equity) cast performs with total conviction. Wes Williams delivers a terrific performance as Zack, making his ambitions to fly for the United States Navy totally believable, and he sings with a strong, pleasing tenor. Mia Massaro matches him well as Paula, feisty and self-directed. She makes her rapidly growing tenderness for Zack feel believable, while maintaining her character's strength. Massaro, too, has a strong, lovely voice, especially put to good effect on "Right Here Waiting." Massaro and Williams have onstage chemistry together that also helps draw us in to them.
David Wayne Britton gives a solid performance as Marine Gunnery Sargent Emil Foley, Zack's training officer and nemesis throughout the twelve week course. Less fearsome than Louis Gossett Jr.'s Supporting Actor Oscar-winning depiction in the film, Britton's take on Foley remains intimidating and tough, brooking no nonsense and no excuses–but he does show glimmers of appreciation for his students' efforts and individuality that serve to humanize him. Emily Louise Franklin and Cameron Loyal as Lynette and Sid, respectively, play well together in sifting through the hazards they face as a mixed race couple in 1981. They also sound great together while singing Debbie Gibson's "Lost in Your Eyes." Loyal also admirably depicts Sid's struggles to meet the expectations of his bullying father. Amaya White, as Seegar, conveys the grit one would expect of a short Black woman determined to pass muster in the era's white male dominated world of Naval officer training.
While the set, designed by Brett Banakis, is not particularly attractive, neither are the locations it is meant to create, which it does serviceably. These include: the training camp; the coffin factory (changed, oddly, from the movie's paper bag factory) where Paula, her friend Lynette, her mother and other women work dead-end jobs; a low-end motel where the couples pursue their desires; a bar where candidates and local guys uncomfortably mix; and other locales. Emilio Sosa's costume designs meet the demands of blue collar factory workers, naval trainees, and officers, although Zack is decidedly over-dressed when he reports to training. Lighting (Jen Schriever), sound (Jon Weston), and video (Austin Switser) design–including great video simulation of breaking waves on an ocean beach–all contribute to the show's quality. Mark Binns directs a band consisting of five musicians who put a terrific spin on all those hard rock and power ballad oldies.
An Officer and a Gentleman stands in a long line of movie-to-stage musicals that beg the question, "Does the musical add to or transform the movie?" This retelling of the story brings to the table two social issues that were not a part of the movie, so in that sense it digs deeper. On the other hand, the core story–Zack's journey to becoming both a U.S. Navy pilot and a better person is diluted by the way he is characterized. As for the added songs, they work about half the time, but sometimes get in the way, especially when musical numbers aim to depict basic training. Maybe fewer songs and more attention to the real ordeal of twelve weeks of Naval officer training would be a better way to tell this story than the current songfest.
A Gentleman and an Officer ran January 20, 2022 through January 23, 2022, the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. For information on future productions, call 651-224-4222 or visit Ordway.org. For more information on the tour, visit officerandagentlemanmusical.com.
Book: Dick Scanlan. Original Book: Douglas Day Stewart and Sharleen Cooper Cohen, based on the screenplay by Douglas Day Stewart.
Songs written by: Pat Benatar, Myron Grombacher, Kerryn William Tolhurst, Carly Simon, Erik Dylan Anderson, Connie Rae Harrington, Caitlyn Elizabeth Smith, Michael Gordon Oldfield, Geddy Lee, Neil Peart, Will Jennings, Steve Winwood, Glen Ballard, Chynna Phillips, Carnie Wilson, Rick Springfield, Frankie Sullivan, James Peterik, Simon Crispin Climie, Holly Knight, Deborah Ann Gibson, Michael Donald Chapman, Corey Hart, Colin Hay, Trevor Charles Horn, Jon Anderson, Trevor Charles Rabin, Chris Squire, Melissa Etheridge, Tommy R. Shaw, Richard Marx, Jack Nitzche, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Robert Van Leeuwen.
Director: Dick Scanlon; Choreographer: Patricia Wilcox; Scenic Design: Brett Banakis; Costume Design: Emilio Sosa; Lighting Design: Jen Schriever; Sound Design: Jon Weston; Video Design: Austin Switser; Wig and Hair Design: Kelley Jordan; Fight Choreography: Casey Kaleba; Orchestrations: Dan Lipton and Nathan Dame: Music Supervision: Dan Lipton; Dance Arranger: Gary Adler; Music Director: Mark Binns; Casting: Wojcik|Seay Casting; Associate Director: Matthew Kunkel; Production Stage Manager: Edmond O'Neal; Original Producer: Jamie Wilson.
Cast: Zare Anguay (OC Leung), David Wayne Britton (Sergeant Emil Foley, The Admiral, Seeger's Dad), William Warren Carver (OC Perryman), Emily Louise Franklin (Lynette Pomeroy), Christopher Robert Hanford (OC Greer), Kyler Hershman (OC McNamara), Nathaniel D. Lee (OC Watts), Cameron Loyal (Sid Worley Jr.), Mia Massaro (Paula Pokrifki), Nicole Morris (MacNamara's Fiance, factory worker), Blake Sauceda (OC Zuniga), Elise Shangold (Zack's Mom, factory worker), KD Stevens (OC Cohen), Shelly Verden (Mr. Ruddiger, Captain Wagner, Troy, Zack's Dad), Amaya Whiter (Casey Seeger), Wes Williams (Zack Mayo), Jillian Worthing (Sheila, factory worker), Roxy York (Esther Pokrifki).