How does one know that one has come to see a famous adaptation of an 80s romantic drama? It’s through hearing most of the elderly members of the audience gush like teenagers about Richard Gere and hearing them hope that the lead bearing a close resemblance to him.
With that positive note in mind, I fully expected An Officer and A Gentleman (AOAG henceforth) to serve the familiar romantic drama fodder of cheesy lines, aww-inspiring moments and a finale where the leading man sweeps the leading lady off her feet to a happily ever after and I was more than satisfied by the time the final curtain dropped. AOAG carried off its finale perfectly with simply inspiring set, video and light design that left me completely immersed.
The story for AOAG follows the same lines as the film that its based on. A Navy brat, Zack Mayo (played by Jonny Fines) enlists in an arduous training program to become a US Navy Pilot. It’s there that he meets the tough, straight talking, euphemism chucking Drill Sergeant Emil Foley (portrayed by the brilliant Ray Shell). Shell’s character spares none of the cadets and literally makes them “dive into hell before he allows him to soar into the heavens”. Of the three standout actors of the shows, Ray Shell was certainly one and it was the humour and delivery of his lines that mostly carried the show.
In addition to the other members of the base, Zack also meets Paula Pokrifki (played by Emma Williams), a local girl with Polish heritage and a Southern American accent to boot. For the next two and a half hours, we see Zack come to the verge of quitting, Zack and Paula falling in love, getting driven apart by the tragedy of a mutual friend and then finally coming back together in a grand finale.
Most of the plot is peppered with feel good moments typical of the genre, but even those moments lack gravitas occasionally. A good example of this is the final obstacle scene. The buildup for this starts very early in the performance, where Casey (portrayed by the remarkable Keisha Atwell) is shown to be doing well in the academic aspects of the course but failing to match the gruelling physical demands. Quite often, Zack and Casey end up being at loggerheads.
As the final scene approaches, Casey feels overwhelmed by the physical demands of the course and starts to doubt her ability to complete the obstacle course, passing which is imperative for passing the program. As Zack clamours to break the course record, he realises Casey is struggling behind him and decides to abandon his attempt at the fastest time to help Casey plough through the course and climb the final wall. Yet all of this happens too quickly! One moment we see Zack about to hit the finish line and then suddenly he is retreating to the sound of loud, high tempo music that drown out his vocals and we see him draw level with Casey and then we see her struggling up the wall and then she is past the finish line and we move on. It is moments like these which take the emotional sheen out of the scene. Criticism aside, the show does get its humour right thanks not only to Emil Foley, but also due to Paula’s father, who, without even a single utterance manages to get the audience rolling in their seats with his antics.
These brief shining moments would have been incomplete without the subtle and some of the not-so-subtle elements of the set, which was beautifully designed by Michael Taylor. It is through the presence of props like a tall staircase (that features in nearly every scene), rusted iron railings and fences, dreary grey walls and a tiny car driven by the female leads that a much different story is told, one of small town claustrophobia and patriarchy.
The set design is supplemented by Ben Cracknell’s work on the lights and the dim, seedy motel colours all combine to give the feeling of a run down town. Moreover, at the start of the musical and during the interval, we are shown a video montage of 1980s, featuring space shuttle launches, popular news headlines amongst other things that set the period really well and Douglas O’Connell surely deserves kudos for that!
All in all, An Officer and A Gentleman is worth a watch if you want to reminiscence about the yesteryears and hear some of the classics like The Final Countdown or Blaze of Glory again. While the show has its heart in the right place, much like Casey, it fails to live upto the physical demands of a musical but still manages to finish on a high.
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