While it is thrilling that Australia is rapidly becoming recognised as a great place to try out Broadway shows, and that our actors and creatives are considered to be of a high standard, and it is wonderful to see world premieres of shows happening right here in our own backyard, the fact remains that some properties are just not strong enough for the stage.
An Officer and a Gentleman is fairly faithful to the 1982 film (including leaving in its cultural insensitivity: racial slurs used as endearments; homophobia, and sexism) but the problem is that the film — Academy Award winning and a critical darling of its time — was gritty, emotive, and had plenty to say. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for this new adaptation.
The musical doesn’t really have much to say at all. It tells the same story of Zack Mayo (a buff and capable Ben Mingay), his struggle through Naval officer training, and his meeting of down to earth factory girl Paula (Amanda Harrison, with soaring vocals). But it’s just a run of the mill love story. Zack’s alienation, insecurity, and loneliness feels more like a bad mood than anything of substance, and Paula’s no-nonsense attitude is buried under the actions of a deep romantic who marks her first solo vocals by singing about how she believes in love. She is pigeon-holed as a love interest, and it’s a shame to see.
The subplot featuring the underused and underrated Alex Rathgeber as Sid and sultry Kate Kendall as Paula’s friend Lynette has strong potential for real drama, tension, and emotion, but instead feels like a matter only for the background until, when it is centre-stage and very important, it’s too late for us to want to care about the characters. Some of the audience on opening night laughed during Sid’s moments of deep despair, and that is telling.
Maybe that disconnect can be attributed to the music. The score (by Ken Hirsch and Robin Lerner) is bland and predictable, and the sound in itself lacked clarity. The songs sounded like indistinguishable rock noise. This would be forgivable if the score had promise to it, if the songs were solid in ways other than melodic — if the lyrics were clever, or insightful, or plot-driven. But that’s the problem. Rather than aid the development of the story or encourage action, the vast majority of songs in An Officer and a Gentleman seem to serve no purpose. The action is effectively halted for four or five minutes for someone to warble prettily or grittily, and then it all resumes again once the applause dies down. The device of song — the whole point of musical theatre — is nowhere near effectively used.
The one exception to this is Bert LaBonte’s gruff drill instructor character Sgt Foley, whose song ‘I’ll be Damned’, and it’s reprise, actually show some kind of glimpse inside the gruff and hard, overbearing character, explaining his motivations and intentions. It’s the one time that this show actually feels like a musical, rather than a movie with frequent ad-breaks of radio-ready pop-rock. The standing ovation started with LaBonte’s bow and he earned it, delivering a three-dimensional and compelling performance that leapt off the stage. He’s a welcome breath of fresh air and exciting to watch.
The cast as a whole is talented, that’s undeniable. The singing is note-perfect and the dancing is well-executed and good-looking. Choreographer Andrew Hallsworth brought military precision into group numbers and it worked. George Cartwright opened the show as an appealingly wide-eyed and innocent young Zack, Tara Morice and Amanda Harrison as mother and daughter even share a sincere moment with second-act number ‘Wings of my Own’. Ben Mingay sang his heart out with the gusto you would expect from such a seasoned performer, and Kate Kendall offered winsome charm as scheming Lynette. But.
But the energy of the piece as a whole didn’t seem at any point to take off. It started in the middle and stayed there. I don’t think it was any coincidence that the audience erupted into applause when the finale was upon us, and the vibrant ‘Up Where We Belong’ began, in a representation of the film’s most iconic scene. Something finally connected — even if it was only nostalgia, and even if only for a minute.
Maybe that will be enough.