Skip to main content

An Officer and A Gentleman

Photo by Brian Geach

Sharleen Cooper Cohen, John Frost, Martin L. Cohen M. D., Howard Hirsch, Fiona Horman, David Ian, David Mirvish, Power Arts, Seol and Company, Chun-Soo Shin, Judy Stewart, and Michael Watt present AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN – The Musical, in association with Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, based on the movie written by Douglas Day Stewart at the Sydney Lyric Star Theatre.

AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN – The Musical, was given its World Premiere Performance at the Lyric Star Theatre the 18th May, 2012. Book by Douglas Day Stewart and Sharleen Cooper Cohen. Composers and Lyricists Ken Hirsch and Robin Lerner. Directed by Simon Phillips. It has been a week or so since I saw this production. My companion and I enjoyed ourselves enormously (her name is Kate). We both attended, together, last year, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, and were, relatively, unimpressed. On reading other critical responses to AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN we find ourselves, once again, to be contrarians. I have been trying to solve this – hence my tardiness to respond, dear diary. Douglas Day Stewart, the co-author of the Book for this musical says:

My military training began at Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, where I had to survive a curriculum far more demanding than college, the psychological warfare of a maniacal drill instructor, and the amorous wiles of a local factory girl determined to escape her dead-end life by becoming my wife. In 1980 I wrote a screenplay about this experience…” It is based on a lived in, authentically known, first-hand experience, and handed down to us with passionate will. The movie (1982) has become a legendary romantic-comedy and is ranked for Inspiration, Number 68 on the all time 100 YEARS… 100 CHEERS list. Neither I nor my companion had ever seen the film. The book for this show is, apparently, a slightly stripped back version of the film, and is a blue collar story of down trodden people struggling to find a way to class and economic upward mobility, in the classic American Dream scenario – a classic pitch for any successful entertainment enterprise, I should think.

Essentially we follow the story of Zack Mayo (Ben Mingay), a kid from a rough and tumble background aspiring to become a fighter pilot. To literally, reach for the stars (“All of us lie in the gutter, but some of us look at the stars”). We follow Zack as he enlists in a very forbidding training program where we become attached to the ‘ups and downs’, of not just Zack’s progress, but to several characters on a similar trajectory: Sid Worley (Alex Rathgeber), Charlie Redding (Josef Brown), Taniya Seeger (Zahra Newman), Ramon Guiterrez (Josh Piterman) and others. The ‘down’ time of these officers in training is focused mainly around the bars and dives near the base, and centres on two of the women, Paula Pokrifki (Amanda Harrison) and Lynette Pomeroy (Kate Kendall). The nemesis to all of the protagonists is the Drill Sgt. Emil Foley (Bert Labonte). He tests all these aspirants to the max. There is much potential to the classic Music Theatre formula, here. A popular-culture natural.

The action of the book of this musical is wonderfully guided by Simon Phillips, using a fluid design (Dale Ferguson) of metal stairs and gantries, that is pushed, and pivots in the central space, giving many levels to play on, within the large proscenium frame of the work, with a large scenic background/cyc. One of the difficulties of this venture is the source of the material: a film, which has the ability to shift scene quickly. I thought, well solved by the artists, for the stage. The integration of the factory into the action of the training camp, using a double vision perspective/imposition, one of many good and simple choices. The costumes (Dale Ferguson, again) are either uniforms or factory workers gear. There is no loss seeing men (and women) in uniform, especially the crisp white ones, cap pulled low! And there is no loss in seeing the candidates in lots and lots of different states of dress and undress. Sex appeal is rampant – the cast appear to be very, very fit!! Some of our audience were very moved by the sights on stage. Some even ‘howled’ with pleasure.The Lighting Design (Matt Scott) is top notch, as well.

What is a problem, to me, is that there is not much opportunity for the classic dance of the musical form for this show – the realistic background setting and the naturalistic story line does not offer much logical entrance for it. In this show there is a dream/dance sequence (that is very reminiscent of Miss Saigon, unfortunately) that kicks off the show, a Base Social Dance,later on in Act One, and a big dance number to open up Act Two in TJ’s Bar – a dance of South American origin. In function, however, they are mostly digressions rather than integral to the story. One of the pillars of the Musical Theatre form absent, relatively. The focus of this musical, then, has to be the songs – lyrics, especially the music (both, Ken Hirsch and Robin Lerner).

Unfortunately, not much of the music is memorable. Dramatically, useful, yes, and if this were a PLAY WITH MUSIC, instead of THE MUSICAL , I think very successful. The musical choices progress the story both as expressions of emotion and narrative, but as tunes to carry around with you into your life, not likely.The proof for me was that the song that one takes home, singing, humming for days later, is the quote from the film itself, which is the last song of the night, although,interpolated thematically into the show earlier, UP WHERE YOU BELONG (Lyrics by Jack Nitzsche and Buffy Sainte-Marie; Music by Will Jennings). Nothing in this show matches that hit. I thought, maybe one reason for my huge disappointment with DOCTOR ZHIVAGO was, that the company hadn’t quoted LARA’S THEME – SOMEWHERE MY LOVE by Maurice Jarre from the film – I didn’t take a tune home from that show, either. But I did hum SOMEWHERE MY LOVE, a lot in the following weeks.

The performances are good. I felt that the company had benefited enormously from Mr Phillips direction of the acting. One of his strong suits, (of many, it seems). I was very convinced of the work of the company in the acting territory, one of the three pillars of a great musical performance. The actors make sense and created, at least, convincing two dimensional characterisations of, again, relatively, stock characters of the musical form (not the cinematic form).

This form demands broad brush strokes, quick and ‘iconic’ in communication – no cinematic detail is much possible, here. Mr Mingay impressive as the tough-arse anti-hero, physically and vocally – he causes “vibrations”; Ms Harrison has a simple, understated turmoil in her character’s dilemmas; Mr Rathgeber is very clever in plotting the internal struggle between his character’s family expectations and his plummet to a confused sickness, in his misplaced target, to provide his need for love; and, best of all, the all stops out performance of Mr Lebonte, in a smartly attenuated step-by step journey to complete a ‘mission” of training, as the balance to all the fairytale romance and angst from the ‘youngsters’. The support of the ensemble is also strong: Josh Piterman, Zara Newman, Bartholomew John, Tara Morice (too brief a contribution) and Sheridan Harbridge, are a few I can name confidently. The singing, the third pillar of the musical form, from all, is very strong, and, generally impressive.

So, further to my comparative cogitation and sense of contrariness: DOCTOR ZHIVAGO is a great novel with character and plot developments too sophisticated for a simple musical adaptation. The world, politics and ideas of the novel too immense for a satisfactory experience of any sophistication. More than a love story. Even the film stood towering over the musical make-over/ cut and paste/fillet. I knew the novel and the film well – I may have cultural prejudices (?) The collaborators of DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, all very removed from the world and essential truths of its story – another culture, another time. Very difficult for all, creators and audience. On the other hand, AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN is a classic Rom/com with stock heroes, one can root for, and a villain to hiss, almost, (he does have a heart of gold, really – much later in the show) existing in a world easily identifiable and accessible for the general audience, and me. This story comes from the life of one of the creators. It has a connection that vibrates with veracity of self-knowledge. There are no real complications in the ideas line: struggle against the status quo with integrity and honour, and success and love will flow – a fairytale view of life, but one we have all bought and expect in this genre form. I did not know the film, so was having a ‘virgin’ experience and found it very easy and simple, rewarding to follow and enjoy. I may have had a cultural gratification(?) infantile, yes, but CLEAR. Walt has a lot to answer for!

All the elements of this production appeared to be much more integrated. The costumes, in show comparison, from two different periods, of course, were much more consistently detailed and accurate in AN OFFICER AN A GENTLEMAN. For ZHIVAGO perhaps a budget issue(?) – the scale of Zhivago, immense, across class and eras. The set by Dale Ferguson, a smoother and consistently more elegant solution than the DOCTOR ZHIVAGO – the scenic rooms and landscape of Zhivago demanding enormous range – including, in one section a moving train. The acting from all of this company of a much more consistent and believably committed kind. The principals better in this show than the other. The singing seemed, to my ear, much more evenly secure and impassioned.

So, I enjoyed AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN very much. If I had a choice of seeing DOCTOR ZHIVAGO or AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN at the cinema again, I would choose the DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. If I had the choice to see DOCTOR ZHIVAGO – THE MUSICAL or AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN – THE MUSICAL in the theatre again, I would choose AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN. Hands down. So did my companion. But – but, but, but, if I had a choice to see AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN or SOUTH PACIFIC again, I know it would have to be SOUTH PACIFIC. True, both have military undress and hijinx, but what the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical has, is a story with more than a Rom/com objective, it also has complex social politics as its target in its plot and characterisations (James A. Mitchener, novel), it has songs with emotion and narrative progression and personal development, but greatest of all, it has music that one can carry tunefully into one’s life forever. That is where both DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN  could focus their further development. The music part of the musical! My companion agrees. SOUTH PACIFIC coming to the Opera Theatre real soon. (There is a movie and that is great, as well, of course – I own a copy and can sing most of the lyrics – well embedded in my life, indeed).