Director Simon Phillips and team redefine the boundaries of music theatre in this gripping, moving and ultimately uplifting new musical.
Pushing the limits of stage-bound action to the extreme, An Officer and A Gentleman follows a bunch of naval recruits through 13 weeks of training hell as they run, jump, climb, cry, steal and screw their way through Naval Training Camp.
Director Simon Phillips has again proved himself the ultimate theatrical ringmaster, corralling the very best from all members of the cast and creative team. In particular, the vision required to orchestrate the almost nonstop movement of the set and performers is akin to the insight of a great architect or engineer.
Credit also goes to Phillips not just for casting the show brilliantly but for binding and blending the cast to a trusting, tight-knit whole. The commitment, focus and sheer energy of the cast comes pulsing across the footlights, with their ownership of the characters and story being an extra special touch.
Douglas Day Stewart and Sharleen Cooper Cohen’s book, containing all of the adult themes of Stewart’s hit 1982 movie, is a rich character study of desperation and ambition enhanced by its high stakes setting.
The first convention to be overturned comes when the first ten minutes of the show focus on an 11 year old kid, with none of the half dozen or so lead stars anywhere in sight. Having shown the background of his morals, fight training, survival skills and inspiration, this prologue pays off repeatedly as the story progresses, informing and deepening all aspects of Zack Mayo’s personality and behaviour.
George Cartwright more than than rises to the challenge of opening the show as Young Zack, singing with purity and gazing unflinchingly at the seedy world of the Philippines underworld. Bartholomew John gives a gritty portrayal of Byron, Zack’s grizzled, selfish father.
The musical moves on to the training camp where we meet the notorious Sergeant Foley as he inducts the latest batch of flabby, longhaired candidates sent to try his patience. Foley’s derisive nicknames follow the characters through the story, aiding the audience’s identification of and attachment to the recruits.
Bert Labonté gives an extraordinary performance, barking out the harsh insults and seemingly cruel punishments of Foley, whilst painting vivid undertones of respect, compassion and insight. This creates a truly rounded, understandable, even likable man who, in lesser hands, could have been a one dimensional monster.
Foley’s tempestuous relationship with Zack is ultimately as crucial to the story as Zack’s romantic relationship with Paula. The writing and performances leave an interesting dilemma: does Foley push Zack to extremes because he wants him to fail or because he knows he needs it to succeed?
Ben Mingay is a terrific leading man whose presence will no doubt aid the show in becoming a demographic-busting hit. Tall, dark, fit and supremely masculine, Mingay gives a raw, exposed performance as the physically tough but emotionally vulnerable Zack. Singing with a throaty earthiness, Mingay exudes an everyman accessibility that facilitates the audience’s attachment to him for his journey to hard won success. And he can do dialogue while doing push ups!
Just as Carousel’s Julie Jordan and Carrie Pipperdge wished their lives away working at the mill, best friends Paula Pofriki and Lynette Pomeroy foster dreams of being navy wives while slaving away at the local factory.
Amanda Harrison gives a grounded, engaging performance as the realistic, level-headed Paula. Harrison’s strength is the passion she displays from within, avoiding any extraneous flourishes which could mire the role in sappy melodrama. Arguably given the pick of the best songs overall, Harrison’s trademark belt is well used, particularly in “If You Believe in Love The Way I Do” and “Wings of My Own.”
The presence of a second string couple dates back to Oklahoma! and beyond, but even Ado Annie’s difficulty with saying no didn’t put her is a sex scene as explicit as that between Lynette and Sid. Paula’s more aggressively ambitious friend Lynette sets her sights on Sid in her bid to be an jet pilot’s wife, hoping to live in the world’s most exotic locales.
Kate Kendall is superbly cast as Lynette, easily singing the role and, more importantly, bringing an emotional maturity and highly skilled acting talent that a younger actress would most likely not have possessed. In Kendall’s capable hands, Lynette begins as a deceptively beguiling young woman, with the ruthless twist in her nature being completely believable. Again, we are left with a dilemma in terms of whether or not Lynette is telling the truth after her actions contribute to a heartbreaking tragedy.
Alex Rathgeber casts aside his lightweight tenor lead image with his pared back, sensitive portrayal of star recruit Sid Worley. By presenting a character who is not comfortable in his own skin, Rathgeber captures the unease bubbling beneath the surface of a young man who ostensibly has everything going for him. And it is well worth the wait to hear Rathgeber sing in act two’s “Be My Wife.”
Welcome comic relief comes from Josh Piterman as the sexually deluded Guiterrez. Taking a punt on a smaller featured role pays off handsomely for Piterman (seen nationally as Tony in West Side Story), giving him the chance to display his considerable comic chops, sing a terrific upbeat number and, best of all, dance up a storm.
Another endearing, well written and acted character is Taniya Seegar, known to all, thanks to Foley, as “Ghetto Girl.” Zahra Newman plays the plucky underdog beautifully, completing the type of inspiring journey that is usually reserved for leading characters.
Andrew Hallsworth’s choreography looks set to coin the term “quadruple threat,” adding superhuman strength and fitness to the usual skill set of acting, singing and dancing. Rather than take a representative angle, Hallsworth has the cast running, marching and exercising in time in the most athletic routines this side of Legally Blonde’s jump rope number. The tight, snappy choreography of “Halfway” kickstarts act two. Another clever touch is the synchronized routine of the factory girls, which highlights the repetitive grind of their soul crushing work.
The ultimate test for the quadruple threat performers involves them using a rope to climb a wall. No nets, harnesses or stunt doubles here, just pure sweat and grind by the actors.
The score, with music and lyrics by Ken Hirsch and Robin Lerner, is of the modern style which zips the storyline along, saving traditional solos and duets only for select quieter moments. While not providing instantly hummable melodies, the music is certainly easy to listen to and contains some beautiful moments. Underscoring is well used, most especially the insistent, dissonant piano chord which signals the ensuing tragedy late in act two. Another particular achievement by the composers is finding a believable way to make Foley sing, an outcome which is aided, of course, by Labonté’s masterful skills.
The classic hit “Up Where We Belong” is saved for the eventual happy ending, its impact heightened by not being forced into the score earlier to capitalise on its popularity.
Dale Ferguson’s sets are effectively realistic, incorporating two revolves with stairs and balconies and using a consistent theme of design elements such as metal, concrete and mesh sheeting. The fluid design allows non stop cinematic action, with Matt Scott’s lighting design drawing the eye to each and every significant moment.
Ferguson’s costumes add to the highly realistic style, with the range of uniforms and training gear significantly enhancing the clarity of the story.
Kudos to producers John Frost and Sharleen Cooper Cohen for not only attracting such a gifted and dedicated team, but for allowing them the freedom to work together to create such an integrated and cohesive new musical which deserves all the success it is set to achieve.
Photos: Brian Geach
This review was published on Theatre People on 19 May 2012