An Eighties Classic Gets A Musical Update In ‘An Officer And A Gentleman’

Is there a difference between an officer and a gentleman? To some degree, at least, that’s a question posed by the musical An Officer And A Gentleman, which is based on a well-known 1982 film that I actually wasn’t familiar with before receiving an invite to the musical update currently on view at the Kravis Center. 

The “officer” of the title refers to the coveted position of Navy aviation officer, and the play follows a group of men who are in training to be such officers. Well, group of mostly men, at least, which is one reason the play’s title could be considered a kind of dichotomy. The class of hopefuls also includes the gentlewoman Casey Seeger, who must fight through her classmates’ and teacher’s judgements about her gender before she is accepted by them as a potential comrade. 

However, though such a story as Seeger’s is probably worthy of its own musical, in this one, she is, unfortunately, mostly relegated to the periphery. What we instead find at the story’s center is Zack Mayo, an officer hopeful with a troubled family past, and his budding romance with Paula, a local factory girl with her own daddy issues. 

In an update from the original film (which I’ve still only read summaries and seen portions of,) Paula also has aspirations of becoming a lawyer that feel far-fetched due to the financial barriers to her education. In theory, it’s an interesting attempt at making her a more well-rounded character, if not one that feels fully fleshed out or her dilemma one that feels at all practically as opposed to emotionally resolved by the show’s end. 

Some other twists on the source material include the choice to here portray the aforementioned Seeger and another army hopeful Sid as characters of color. This serves to add some meaningful tension to the show’s other major love story between Sid and Lynette, a coworker of Paula’s who sees landing an officer husband as a way to escape her self-described “white trash” roots. 

Of course, all these changes come second to the major alteration inherent to musicalization: the addition of a score that is in this case made up not of original music but of a selection of pre-existing hits hailing mostly from the era in which the film came out. And while this ups the nostalgia factor that could make the show even more enjoyable for an audience old enough to remember the eighties original, especially in the play’s use of an iconic song from the film, it falls short of being a choice that adds much artistic value to the narrative itself. 

Though the songs occasionally provided meaningful emotional underscoring to the character’s arcs and relationships, in doing nothing to further the plot, most of them ultimately felt more like filler than anything else, which is perhaps why the show’s twoish hour run time grew to feel somewhat wearying. 

Some numbers also seemed downright out of place, such as when “Do the Walls Come Down,” a ballad that seems to have romantic implications, was used during a flashback to a scene between Seeger and her father, and when an upbeat pop medley sung by a peppy girl group was juxtaposed with a high stakes army training exercise. 

In sacrificing so much time to its musical excursions, the play also loses the chance to more fully develop or explore its thematically rich material. While the progression of candidates through their difficult training and the play’s two love stories do still provide the show with an emotional core that makes a tragedy that occurs near the show’s conclusion a striking one, a lack of foreshadowing via earlier glimpses into the mindset of the character involved or into the psychological aftermath mean that the occurrence neither feels fully earned nor fully reckoned with.

Though this tragedy is also one that can be tied to broader social issues involving mental health and the pitfalls of army culture, such implications are mostly left under the surface rather than brought to light. Still, the fact that what is otherwise such a feel-good night of theatre—and thus one that might be appealing to a demographic less inclined to engage with these issues on their own time—does go out of its way to at least include undertones like these and to portray the struggles of characters whose racial, gender, or class status become obstacles to their ambitions takes it a notch above mere escapism, making it more akin to a musical like Hairspray than a pure fluff piece like Mamma Mia

An Officer And A Gentleman is also presented with excellent production values, starting with a uniformly top notch cast. The actors who play all four romantic leads (Emily Louise Franklin, Wes Williams, Cameron Loyal, and Mia Massaro) adeptly embody their characters and excel at conveying the couples’ chemistry, which is key to the story’s power. All also had moments of powerhouse belting that emphasized their considerable vocal prowess, as did Amaya White as the headstrong Seeger and Roxy York as Esther, Paula’s mother.

As Lynette, Franklin also stood out in her appearance as a character who easily could’ve skewed unlikable due to her self-serving choices but who here came off as sympathetic due to the actress’s authentic energy. And David Wayne Britton not only masters the role of hardass instructor Sgt. Foley but plays two other minor characters with such different energies that I may not have guessed they were played by the same actor if it had not been indicated in the playbill. 

Choreography by Patricia Wilcox also broke the mold by incorporating not only conventional dance sequences but moves like push-ups and lunges involved in the future officers’ army training, which required incredible athleticism from an ensemble that proved up to the task. Scenic design by Brett Banakis and video design by Austin Switser also made for some striking visual moments, particularly during an Act 1 beach scene and an Act 2 training sequence, while lighting design by Jen Schriever meaningfully enhanced the emotional effect of several key musical moments. 

So, in the end, was a jukebox musicalization of An Officer and A Gentleman particularly illuminating, or even particularly necessary? Probably not, but it still does make for an admirable enough effort that admirals and citizens alike will have plenty to enjoy if they choose to catch the Kravis Center’s production before it moves on after this May 8th!

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