When Douglas Day Stuart’s screenplay An Officer and a Gentleman first hit the silver screen in 1982, it was an instant hit. Hailed as a romance, it was rather a gritty story of working-class woes that managed to flip the public’s negative post-Vietnam opinion of the American military. It also contained one of the most memorable final scenes in movie history, when a white-clad Gere lifted his sweetheart out of a life of production-line penance.
Thirty years later the story was rewritten by Day Stuart and Sharleen Cooper Cohen for its 2012 transfer to the musical stage. Here it met with less success, enjoying only six weeks in Sydney’s Lyric Theatre. Now re-staged for its 2018 release under director Nikolai Foster, the show features “the soundtrack of a generation”, featuring hits from the film’s original sound track such as “Up Where We Belong”, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”, “Toy Soldiers”, “Alone”, “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and “Material Girl”. This is a clever choice, firmly rooting the action in the decade of its inception, and a sure way of engaging the audience with some toe tapping nostalgia. Necessary requirements, as gender politics have undergone a paradigm shift and such societal transformation has markedly changed the requirements that men and women are expected to fulfil in their intimate relationships with one another.
Inspired by Brutalist architecture, with a backdrop of prison-like concrete walls, the action plays out on or around a military base and a factory floor in Pensacola, Florida. In the former, soldiers fight for their ‘wings’ over 13 weeks of military training. In the latter, women spend a working lifetime fighting a rigid patriarchal hierarchy that confines them to the lowest ranks of employment. Everyone is searching for an escape: Zack Mayo (played by the brawny Jonny Fines) looks to officer status to eclipse a troubled upbringing from a brutish naval father; Paula Pokrifki (an enigmatic Emma Williams) attempts to fit nurse training around her shifts but is foiled at almost every step. Sid Worley (Ian McIntosh) and Lynette Pomeroy (Jessica Daley) have their own equally powerful reasons for change and are convinced that the other holds the answer to a brighter future. The recruits are warned about the tricks women play to keep men from leaving. The older women disparage the officers who ran away.
For all its focus on machismo, it is Rachel Stanley as Esther Pokrifki and Corinna Powlesland as Aunt Bunny who stand out as matriarchal powerhouses, leading the workforce in the most iconic song of all. Stanley’s duet with Williams in “Don’t Cry Out Loud” is another sure highlight, their voices resonant with pathos and pride. Trigonometric choreography by Kate Prince against projected equations is simple and effective, as is the pre-show montage of images depicting the current affairs and entertainers of ‘82. Casey Seegar’s (Keisha Atwell) struggle as the only female recruit remains pertinent, even if Ray Shell’s Sergeant Emil Foley is less physically threatening than his onscreen counterpart.
Foster describes An Officer and a Gentleman as a simple story of complex, often marginalised lives but one must return to the poignancy of the screenplay to really have a sense of profound struggle. It is likely that this show will appeal most to those who watched the film during its original release and judging by the standing ovations this version of the musical succeeds in doing just that.
Wales Millennium Centre
until June 30