In April this year, Richard Gere married his wife Alejandra Silva, announcing that he was, “the happiest man in the universe”. He was, of course, the original heart-throb in the 1982 film, An Officer and a Gentleman. It seemed rather fitting, then, that the world premier of this new musical should coincide so neatly with recent events. A homage, as it were.
Casting my mind back to 1982, I would have seen the film when I was 19 years old. I would now be viewing the musical 36 years later, through older eyes. The original story revolves around the trials of Zach Mayo (known affectionately as ‘Mayonnaise’), a Candidate who’s trying to overcome the traumas of his childhood by training to be a jet pilot in the US Navy based in Florida. The trials and tribulations of Mayo and his cohort unfold, with the main line of the plot following the ups and downs of Mayo’s budding relationship with local paper factory girl Paula Pokrifki (Emma Williams). Neither of them want a serious relationship, or so they say. The backdrop to this main story tackles issues which would not be out of place on the Jeremy Kyle show – class inequality, unwanted pregnancy, alcoholism, girls taking advantage of boys, boys taking advantage of girls, abusive parenting, psychological trauma, a bullying sergeant major Foley, homophobic language, racism, lots of swearing, child neglect, suicide, bereavement, the list goes on and on. Zach consequently begins his quest as a rough and damaged individual – will he be able to emerge from his chrysalis to become an officer and a gentleman, or will he be chained to his past forever? All this, and set to music! Plus some very impressive athleticism from the cast, as they train for their new careers in the navy.
For those of you that can remember the original film, you may be relieved to hear that “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”, has been dropped from this new production, in favour of 80’s songs which support the plot better. Act one kicks off with the candidates singing, ‘In the Navy Now’, a slightly lyrically-adjusted version of Status Quo’s, “In the Army Now”. And it is belted out with enthusiasm and passion, an energy which is maintained from the beginning to the end of the show. I was slightly surprised to see the audience sitting so still throughout numbers such as, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”, and, “St Elmo’s Fire”. This may have been down to the fact that this is a new show, and people were unsure what to expect or how to react. This continued into the second act, despite a rocking performance of “Livin’ on a Prayer”. However, a spell seemed to fall over the audience following this. As the story developed, they became more engaged with the various characters. The performance took on a new life which continued to build until the finale. Now, just in case there is anyone who doesn’t know how the story ends, please look away now as I would hate to spoil it for you. For those in the know, the girl gets her man. Zack finally metamorphoses into an officer and a gentleman, emerging in his whiter than white uniform to claim his woman, with the anthem, “Up Where We Belong” pulsing out. The audience gave in at this point. They were up on their feet cheering and clapping the happy couple. And so the musical ends.
Despite the happy and fluffy fairy-tale conclusion, there were some serious songs during the course of the story. For me, outstanding performances were given by the women working in the factory when they sang, “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”, and also, “Don’t Cry Out Loud”, a duet between Paula and her mother Esther. Personally, I felt Rachel Stanley (who played Esther) gave a superb performance and conveyed real gravitas and emotion.
The set is simple but effective throughout, converting seamlessly from a factory floor at one moment to a naval training base the next. Projected visuals cleverly back this up. Before the performance begins proper, a pastiche of images are projected onto the screen, showing iconic images and people from the 1980’s, thus aligning you with that era.
Regarding the demographics of the audience, my companion (a male biker) was surprised at the variety of people present, ranging from teenage and parents, to grandparents. As a very rough guestimate, I would say there was probably about one man to every four women in the audience. The fact that my companion enjoyed the show is testament to the fact that it can be appreciated by a diverse audience. After all, this is the man who laughed hysterically and then looked at me in disbelief when I asked if he’d like to go with me to see Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! His favourite character in the musical was Casey Seegar, played by Keisha Atwell. He felt that she had overcome the most obstacles to reach her dream of becoming a jet pilot. There is also a nice twist at the end between her and Sergeant Foley – a deviation from the original film.
Silly moment: “I Was Made For Loving You” produced a polite round of applause from the audience. Zack and Paula had been ‘making out’ throughout this song – it wasn’t entirely clear whether the applause was for the singing or for Zack’s successful completion of his encounter with Paula!
At this point, it is perhaps important to mention that there is a lot of adult themes in this production, ranging from lustful encounters of the horizontal kind in the first act to a suicide in the second act, plus swearing. It is probably not best suited to younger children or those easily offended. Otherwise, I am sure you will enjoy this very polished and professional production, which I am sure will become established as a firm favourite in the future.
An Officer and a Gentleman shows at Bristol Hippodrome until Saturday 4th August
Review by Jan Housby