A confession: I’ve never seen An Officer and a Gentleman. As in the 1982 film, starring Richard Gere, Debra Winger and Lousi Gossett Jr., directed by Taylor Hackford. You’ll, of course, make up your own minds as to whether this is a good, bad, or neutral thing, in terms of my qualification to review the world premier musical, just opened at The Star’s Lyric Theatre.
With a book by Douglas Day Stewart and Sharleen Cooper Cohen (who’s also presenting the production, in association with John Frost and others), it’s the kissing cousin of the flick, as it was Stewart who penned the screenplay. It’s a little surprising, then, Stewart didn’t intuit that the transition from screen to stage takes a little more than breaking down key scenes from the movie and building some scenery. Mind you, that observation assumes artistic integrity as being to the fore in the mind of the musical’s creators, which may or may not be the case.
Critiquing an Australian-backed musical is a bit like slaughtering, or at least injuring, a sacred cow. Anything that employs Aussie actors, singers, musicians and crew has got to be good, especially when they’re of this calibre. But, nonetheless, even the finest performances (and there are numerous that are, indeed, fine) don’t maketh a musical.
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One of the impediments here is the lack of visual spectacularity: none of the kitsch ostentation of Priscilla here. Well, OK, a slight drama about a virtual orphan that bites the hand that feeds him in the form of the US Navy isn’t requisite of super-sized drag. (Although, now that I come to think of it … No, no. Not really.)
But I was waiting for a jet fighter to land, in the second act, but it never eventuated. The set, while well-designed and built, looked like the platform on which so many other musicals are built. Stairs, leading to elevated platforms. Bar scenes. Deserted industrial landscapes. On the one hand, it could’ve been Rent. On the other, Miss Saigon.
It certainly isn’t Noel Coward: the dearth of intelligent dialogue is, at times, embarrassing. Case in point: witness Zack, our hero, pouring out his heart to love interest, Paula, about his mother’s suicide. She might be a small-town girl, but surely even Paula could’ve managed something less lame than: “Wow, that must’ve really hurt.” Likewise, when Zack is grappling with the suicide of his friend, Sid, it’s worthy of and ripe for a South Park parody: “It’s just like my damn mother!”
Having said that, while nothing that we haven’t seen before, Sergeant Emil Foley’s brutal induction is both clever and funny, which redeems the spoken material somewhat.
Composers and lyricists Ken Hirsch and Robin Lerner do a solid, if unspectacular job, too. The music can be stirring, even moving, but it’s by the numbers lyrics seem, here and there, a bit laboured and awkward.
Solid, but unspectacular, in fact, tends to sum up the whole shebang. The best moments come from the performers themselves, who have quite obviously been in good hands, especially with Simon Phillips as director.
At the head of the pack, and credits, is Ben Mingay as Zack Mayo, who has an extraordinary voice of highly individual character which, a little like the ocean at ebb tide, seethes power. That power is never really unleashed here and, for those accustomed to the tonality usually associated with leading men in musicals, it can take a little getting used to. Since he has experience in opera (not to mention rock), an obvious comparison is Anthony Warlow who, while always wallow, seems to find somewhat different horses for different courses. I’m not sure Mr Mingay has quite that adaptability and not all will acquire the taste for his timbre, in this context, I don’t think. But the ladies (and doubtless some of the gents) will like his looks and physique. He certainly looks heroic, in a beefcake, Robert Mitchum, majorly macho, naval kind of way.
Amanda Harrison gets her moment to shine, vocally, and she really takes it, showing just how much she has in reserve, as well as the clarity and dependability of her considerable instrument. Dramatically, too, she carries herself confidently and competently. It’s clear she’s a producer’s dreamgirl, making for failsafe casting, as you know exactly what you’ll get and you can be guaranteed it’s going to be very, very good.
Alex Rathgeber and Kate Kendall, respectively best friends to Zack and Paula, make for excellent supports, even if Rathgeber’s singing isn’t in quite the same class as the others. Bartholomew John (who, tragically for us both, I seem to remember as far back as Bandstand) showcases his versatility, with a convincing performance as Zack’s hard-drinking, tattooed, whoring father Byron.
But for mine it’s probably Bert Labonte, as the hardarse officer training sergeant, who shines brightest. His voice is mellifluous; his acting, persuasive. He takes on the role so well it’s easy to suspend disbelief and forget he’s a performer in a musical. Tara Morice shows what she’s made of, too, as Paula’s mum. It’s not a big role (in fact, it’s a bit of a waste, interns of the depth and breadth of her talent), but she amply demonstrates she’s got more in store. She looks to have been busy honing and polishing her skills since that indelible film role.
Josh Piterman gives good Hispanic as Ramon Guiterrez. Joseph Brown is robust too as Charlie Redding. Another standout is Zahra Newman as Taniya Seeger, better known as Ghetto Girl. She has a musical moment (albeit all too short) and, to use The Voice parlance, she really owns it with a sizzling vocal presence.
It’s not quite ‘conduct unbecoming’, but An Officer And A Gentleman didn’t exactly set me on fire. But I hope it catches with the voting, paying, Honda ‘Oddity’-driving public, in any case.
The details: An Officer And A Gentleman plays The Star’s Lyric Theatre until July 1. Tickets via Ticketmaster.