AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN THE MUSICAL

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _THE ALEXANDRA.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _2nd MAR.

February 27, 2024

images © Marc Brenner.

In a February that has offered up a giddy Midsummer Night’s Dream at the RSC in Stratford, and a repeat visit to the cult, postmodern mayhem of Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show, you’d have likely gotten long odds that the month’s most mind-warping, fever dream of a stage experience was to be a Nikolai Foster musical adaptation of An Officer and a Gentleman. By the time underwritten, one-dimensional ‘Aunt’ Bunny (Wendy Harriot, far too good for what she’s given here) was battling to even be heard as she crooned a discordant rework of Kim Wilde’s ‘Kids in America’ as a half-shirtless deadbeat father spun around drunkenly on stage and our leading lady swooned on her bed, I even began to wonder if something had been slipped into my pre-show lemon water.

And whilst it’s never fun to bash on a fledgling new show, in a climate where so many productions and theatre creatives are gasping for breath, the sad truth is that this is amongst the most bizarre, uninspired and lifeless musical experiences you could fling your cash at.

It’s pitched as a romantic, sweeping jolt of nostalgia and feel-good, and to those familiar with the original, key moments such as its iconic finale certainly garner their fair share of whoops and hollering. And for a jukebox offering, some of the artists whose work is crowbarred in – an Eighties smorgasbord of Bon Jovi, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, amongst others – suggests potential. Yet at almost every turn, uninspired staging, flaccid direction and drab choreography, slathered over its problematic, derivative narrative, manage to make even obvious crowdpleasers like ‘Living’ on a Prayer’ and ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ practically dead on arrival. Even anthematic Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes favourite ‘Up Where We Belong’, teased by the orchestra throughout, is relegated to a late-game free for all, when a rousing duet or curtain closer was right there within reach.

“…doesn’t even seem to understand quite what a musical is or needs to be…”

Ultimately, An Officer and a Gentleman doesn’t so much not work as a musical, as it doesn’t even seem to understand quite what a musical is or needs to be. The disjointed, stop-start nature of its flimsy plot is magnified tenfold when it all gets cast aside for what are often completely conflicting pop music interludes. Watch on in bemusement as young Paula (Georgia Lennon) belts the yearning and need of ‘How do I get you Alone?’ …about a character she’s been successfully bonking and, well, alone with, for several weeks now. Brace yourself for the tonal whiplash of a grisly, downbeat suicide being immediately intercepted by a stomping, rifle-swinging rendition of Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’. And if the tone-deaf decision to completely undermine one of the few female characters with any sort of agency or arc by having her only achieve her goal by being literally lifted by the male characters around her to do so threatens to lose you, then fear not – moments later it all breaks out into a baffling, campy, groin-thrusting rendition of Billy Ocean’s ‘When the Going Gets Tough’ for your viewing delight.

What semblance of a plot remains amidst the noise and silence (recurrent mic and sound issues, flubbed lines and missed cues all alarmingly frequent in the performance reviewed – though it is early in the run, so we’ll cut it some slack here) is, for better or worse, fairly faithful to the original. But if much of the gender relations and representation of the early Eighties Richard Gere romance have already aged worse than Mickey Rourke in a bath of sour milk, it seems completely lost on the creatives of this tonal clusterbomb. Following a group of young naval recruits as they begin a gruelling programme of training in the hopes of earning their wings, finding romance and distraction within the neighbouring community, the common bugbear of the militaristic often not gelling well with the medium of musical rings loud and true, here.

Georgia Lennon is a palpable musical theatre talent, and nails some tough sings as love interest (and little more than that) Paula…”

Our naval grunts and love interests are all equally forgettable, cookie-cutter offerings. Luke Baker as protagonist Zack Mayo occasionally restores sanity with genuinely impressive vocals, but it’s a thankless, one-dimensional character that only really registers as human when he’s singing or shouting. Georgia Lennon is a palpable musical theatre talent, and nails some tough sings as love interest (and little more than that) Paula, but like so many of the cast, she’s underserved and far too good for this uninspired rubbish. Elsewhere, Melanie Masson and Jamal Crawford give spirited supporting turns as Paula’s kindly mother and an overbearing drill sergeant, respectively, but they’re yet more rote, formulaic ciphers.

Things do momentarily threaten to come to life with the jostling back and forth of Paul French and Sinead Long’s secondary romance. They’re by some measure the most interesting characters in the piece (which is, admittedly, not saying much) and some of their Act II back and forth actually injects some drama and stakes into it all. French proves himself to once again be a fascinating, idiosyncratic stage performer, lending his troubled son of privilege nuance and substance, whilst Long is a commanding presence and vocal powerhouse, injecting what little flashes of life moments such as a deeply imitative ‘Material Girl’ can manage.

“[Paul] French proves himself to once again be a fascinating, idiosyncratic stage performer, lending his troubled son of privilege nuance and substance…”

It’s just a shame that, with some solid groundwork done, and two great performances from French and Long, their subplot descends into insensitive, borderline offensive dross. The audience is given no clear steer on whether Long’s Lynette is ultimately misguided and naive, or something notably more heartless, sinister and unforgivable (the show seems to suggest both). Regardless, even though half the audience are likely ready to see her get some sort of comeuppance by the end, Long’s Lynette is clumsily lumped in mere moments later as part of a completely unmotivated sisterly belt of Helen Reddy’s ‘I Am Woman’. Because, why not.

For Comic Relief 2009, French and Saunders memorably set their parodic sights on Phyllida Lloyd’s Mamma Mia the Musical. The duo take aim at the utter barminess of it all, and the disjointed marriage of story and music. ‘The Genius of Abba! With Words in Between!’, ‘Beggars Belief!’ and ‘It’s A Nonsense!’ flash across the screen, during their characteristically silly but loving takedown of the musical adaptation. One can only imagine what comedic gold they’d manage to mine with this.

In truth, it’s difficult to recall the last time a musical dropped the ball and failed to harmonise on quite so many levels, and the responsibility to review a piece honestly, knowing that for some, it may be their only affordable theatre experience of the year (or beyond) rings out deafeningly here. It’s a rare but notable misfire from the usually dependable Nikolai Foster. Michael Taylor’s industrial staging, punctured with suitably Eighties neons and jet silhouettes, gives the whole thing a sense of production value and verticality, but it cannot save the mess of a show that it quite literally cages. Nor can a company that are mostly solid and giving it their all.

Throughout An Officer and a Gentleman the Musical, Zack’s posse of fellow wannabe pilots gradually dwindles down as each hit their limits, broken by tough taskmasters, food deprivation or other gruelling obstacles. They finalise their drop out with the ringing of an on-stage bell. And for all but the most ardent of fans, or those content with a handful of fleeting pinches of the nostalgia glands, it’s highly likely that by the midway point (or even sooner) of this lifeless, noisy, confusing mess of a musical, you’ll be tempted to take to the stage and do the same yourself.

Archaic storytelling and rote characters that muddle somewhere between lazy and offensive, collide with clumsily shoehorned, drably-staged eighties pop hits. A game, talented cast who mostly deserve better can do little to give this tonally jarring misfire its wings.

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