Regional Reviews: Phoenix
An Officer and a Gentleman
Set in 1981, the plot follows Zack Mayo, a determined young man who has had a rough past and is hell bent on becoming a Navy pilot by graduating from the 12-week long Aviation Officer Candidate School in order to make a better life for himself. However, the rigorous training is overseen by the rough and demanding training officer, Marine Gunnery Sargent Emil Foley. Can the tenderness Zack finds in his romance with local factory girl Paula and the hope that he makes it through the training, lift them both up from their troubled pasts to find a better future?
The story is simple, so the fact that the movie is now 40 years old is a good thing, since it will most likely not be entirely fresh in many people's minds who saw the film and unfamiliar to other theatre goers who've never seen the movie. It's also strong and even uplifting at times, with an audience-pleasing ending. Fans of the music of the '80s will love hearing such hits from that decade as "Never Surrender," "Lost in Your Eyes," "Love is a Battlefield," and the Oscar-winning film song. While only a handful of the songs fit into the plot, they are all sung well by the large (non-Equity) cast.
The film was originally made into a stage musical with an original score that premiered in Australia in 2012 with a book from Douglas Day Stewart and Sharleen Cooper Cohen, which was based on Day Stewart's screenplay. It then was later changed, with Dick Scanlan, who also directs this United States national tour production, adapting the 2012 stage show book, dropping the original score, and using the songs from the film and others from the 1980s. While the main plot follows the basic plot of the film, several changes have been made to the supporting characters as well as some attributes of the two leads, in order to, one assumes, connect better with a modern audience. Zack now no longer lacks motivation at times, as was depicted in the film, and is now one of the strongest and smartest candidates in the program. Since he's no longer the underdog, as he was in the movie, it makes his trajectory a little less intriguing, although his journey is still interesting. Also, Paula now works in a casket factory, not a paper bag factory as she did in the film, a change that doesn't really add anything new to the story. She also now has aspirations of her own, to become a paralegal, and Zack helps her shoot for a bigger goal, to get a law degree, which is a nice way to flesh out the character from, who was mainly only looking for an officer to marry.
Concerning changes to the supporting characters: as in the film, Paula's co-worker Lynette begins a relationship with Zack's fellow training officer Sid, but for the stage version, Sid is now African American and the issues of having to navigate a bi-racial relationship in a small town in America are a welcome addition for this adaptation. Another training officer, Casey Seeger, is now also African American, and the plot shows how she breaks down various gender barriers in the Navy.
Scanlan's direction is cinematic in nature, with the use of projections, video elements, and flashbacks providing a clever way to move the plot forward while also depicting moments in Zack's past. The set design by Brett Banakis, Austin Switser's vibrant video elements, and Jen Schriever's lighting, combine to create some impressive stage images which whisk us along to the many locations in the plot. Emilio Sosa's costume designs are rich and realistic in their depiction of the naval officers and factory workers. The athletic choreography by Patricia Wilcox works well to depict the rigorous training regime. Mark Binns' direction of the five-piece band delivers driving versions of these many familiar rock and pop tunes, soaring vocals and rich harmonies from the cast.
As Zack, Wes Williams is appropriately ambitious and completely believable as a self-centered Navy officer, a loner who learns and grows from his past experiences and his involvement with the people around him. Williams' rich, earthy, and powerful singing voice shines on his many songs. Mia Massaro is completely matter of fact as Paula, who doesn't want to fall in love with Zack as she doesn't want to have her heart broken when he graduates the program and leaves town. She has a strong singing voice, and she and Williams have great chemistry, which makes the relationship between Zack and Paula realistic. David Wayne Britton is very good as Zack's training officer Emil Foley (a less fierce Foley than Louis Gossett Jr.'s Oscar winning film portrayal) and also as the fathers of both Sid and Casey. Britton creates three-dimensional, varied performances as the three different men that are full of strength, humility, and humanity.
As Lynette and Sid, Emily Louise Franklin and Cameron Loyal, respectively, create a winning duo. Watching them struggle through the issues they face as a mixed-race couple is heartbreaking at times due to their assured performances. They also share the famous Debbie Gibson love duet, "Lost in Your Eyes," and sound great singing it. Williams and Loyal are effective in portraying characters who struggle with difficult or unapproving fathers. Amaya White, as Seegar, does a great job depicting the issues faced by an African-American woman in what has traditionally been a white man's world. Her determination and drive make her portrayal of Seegar into an audience favorite. The rest of the cast all do well portraying a range of characters, from fellow Navy officers to people in the characters' lives.
While it isn't a perfect musical, as not all of the pop songs work, An Officer and a Gentleman is a tender and somewhat bittersweet story about determination, romance, and the drive to overcome the obstacles in one's past. The stage adaptation makes some updates so the topics in the musical are more accessible for a modern audience, with the addition of social and racial issues, and the story of Zack's desire to achieve his goals is one that you can root for.
An Officer and a Gentleman runs through March 13, 2022, at the Orpheum Theatre, 203 W Adams Street, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.americantheatreguild.com/phoenix/. For more information on the tour, visit officerandagentlemanmusical.com.
Book: Dick Scanlan