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  • Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

At PPAC: An Officer and a Gentleman endures

An Officer and a Gentleman, the musical, came to the Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC) on Friday February 18 for a whirlwind stay. The visit ended on Sunday February 20.

While here in the Ocean State it made its presence known.

Based on the highly successful 1982 movie that earned two Academy Awards and won millions of viewers to its love-affirming story of a working-class woman and a Navy officer candidate who make it despite the likelihood they won't, the stage show has been re-imagined.

Their long-shot relationship, as on film, ultimately succeeds against challenging odds, but the stage version bids to build upon the film’s success. It is a bold, if not daunting, undertaking.

The original screenplay was written by Douglas Day Stewart. The book for the show that went up in Providence preceded by a U.S. Navy color guard on February 18 after a concert of patriotic armed services songs on the PPAC Wurlitzer organ, was written and directed by Dick Scanlan. It was choreographed by Patricia Wilcox.

The task of rewriting the core components of the basic story four decades later is formidable. Fortunately for audiences who will be unable to avoid making comparisons, Scanlan succeeds more than he falls short.

It has been widely reported that he spent a 12-hour day at the Naval Station Newport observing the workings of its training facility for officer candidates in order to understand the base’s atmosphere and culture. The setting for the musical is said to be located there. (The movie, however, was set in Washington State.)

One assumes that this local frame of reference is enough to make Rhode Island viewers sympathetically disposed to the production, but that shouldn’t amount to a free pass.

Using a dramatic story to make a credible platform for singing and dancing is the raison d’etre of all musicals. In the present instance, the need for recounting the complexity of the story almost clashes with the pace and allure of the singing in this Officer and a Gentleman.

With more dialogue and exposition than is common in most contemporary stage musicals, the first act of the production grinds its gears a little.

The songs are well enough performed, and the first rendition of “Up Where We Belong” by Zack and Paula offers a foretaste of the soaring finish of Act II. Also, choreographed group calisthenic exercises by the company in place of dance numbers offer impressive demonstrations of synchronic movement.

Additionally, the script for the stage show updates the prevailing attitudes regarding the empowerment of women and the evolution of racial awareness. Salient issues relevant to these themes are made apparent, but no easy answers are suggested.

As in the film, the irony inherent in self-discovery leads to the protagonist Zack Mayo and his love, Paula Pokrifki, rising above the limits their life histories have imposed on them.

Zack is striving to come to terms with his troubled youth, his mother’s suicide, and his father’s abuse.

Paula, similarly, has been abandoned by her father and is stuck in a dead-end manufacturing job with few prospects of escaping. Yet, improbably, they succeed in overcoming the restrictions of class and circumstance to win a chance at a future together.

Throughout the story Zack and his fellow candidates are challenged by their mentor and nemesis Marine Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley. It is he who challenges Zack to dig down and discover the importance of character in becoming a leader.

Love sometimes does triumph over all, the final outcome affirms, as Zack, committed to marrying her, picks Paula up and carries her out of the casket factory where she works. This final scene suggests a groom lifting his beloved over the threshold and into their future together.

In contrast, Zack’s good friend and fellow officer candidate, Sid Worley Jr., and Paula’s BFF Lynette Pomeroy, whose relationship mirrors the lead couple’s, see their love disintegrate. The fall is precipitated by revelations brought out by Sid’s need to face his own doubts about his future in the Navy and Lynette’s conflicting desires for status and security despite her love for Sid.

The outcome is tragic with Sid resorting to suicide and Lynnette being overwhelmed with guilt. If that sounds like a downer, it plays like a moment of profound truth.

The storyline is heavier than many contemporary musicals attempt, but, hey, Fiddler on the Roof, South Pacific, and West Side Story are not light fare either.

An Officer and a Gentleman stands on its own feet, and the cast earns the applause they receive.

Wes Williams sings wonderfully as Zack, and Mia Massaro is good as Paula. An amazingly fit and lithe Cameron Loyal ably portrays Sid, while Emily Louise Franklin is sensual and compelling as Lynette.

David Wayne Britton, an actual Navy veteran, plays Sergeant Foley. He commands respect while commanding the officer candidate class.

Roxy York as Paula’s mother, Esther, has a fine moment with her solo “Right Here Waiting.”

This An Officer and a Gentleman, passes muster.

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