Not the most obvious retro pic for the tuner treatment, this reworking of the 1982 Taylor Hackford hit “An Officer and a Gentleman” is a faithful but fluffy affair that ultimately does little to lift anyone up where they belong. Songs in the first act never take flight, and the original story is so well-known, and so slavishly followed here, that the musical feels reductive rather than reinvigorating.
Save for some clumsy updates — extra women in the cadet group and love interest Paula Porkrifki studying to be a nurse instead of just wanting to see the world — and necessary truncation, like removing key family plots for Paula, that first act seems mostly to smother a central romance that is barely alight.
Play, like the pic, begins with a Manila flashback that has been neatly converted into a dream sequence by director Simon Phillips. Abandoned boy Zack Mayo seeks out his father, Byron, a navy hustler, and soon learns to trust no one. When he awakes, the adult Zack (played by Ben Mingay, a beefier, cleaner-cut Richard Gere for the “Twilight” generation) is headed for officer training camp where, in a tried-and-tested ’80s movie tradition, he will meet his nemesis in tough-as-nails Sgt. Emile Foley (Bert Labonte, who is strong, funny, but still doesn’t compare to film’s Louis Gossett Jr.). He bunks with navy royalty Sid Worley (Alex Rathgeber) and rubs most of the rest of the group up the wrong way.
Meanwhile local girl Paula is working in the local box factory with her mother (a wasted Tara Morice) and out to meet officers with friend Lynette, who quickly sets her sights on Sid.
Act I — into which songs appear to be inserted merely because there has been too much talking — intersperses the training with the two romances, but it feels as if naval camaraderie wins out even if Sid and Lynette manage a believable (though whip-fast) connection. This is mainly down to the strength of the two actors: Rathgeber gives a wonderfully nuanced turn as the conflicted young officer torn between his family’s desires and his own and Kendall is a believable mix of needy and vicious in her search for an aviator husband.
Mingay (who previously appeared in a local staging of “Jersey Boys”) is a solid lead with the swagger and emotion to keep an aud interested, but Harrison does little with the pared-down part that Debra Winger made so memorable in the pic.
Things improve considerably in Act II, which starts with a bang, a hip-shaking salsa number “Halfway” that highlights the workaday previous act. Things remain pert throughout the second half: Song “Wings of My Own,” while a little cliched, provides Harrison’s finest hour and Kendall’s “Dirty Little War,” about trapping her man, proves wickedly entertaining.
By keeping everyone moving and the pace clipped during the second act of tragedy and triumph, Phillips makes sure it all moves as seamlessly as Dale Ferguson’s sinuous, skeletal set, a deceptively simple scaffold that easily becomes the bones of bars, motels and the navy base.
However, the attempt to set the pic in an unidentified time fails mainly because Ferguson’s costumes strongly channel the ’70s, as does the Farrah Fawcett wig on Kendall.
So when wings and hearts have been won, we come to the big moment when Zack enters the box factory in full naval whites to carry Paula off. But the signature tune, “Up Where We Belong,” feels shoehorned in, particularly when the more oblique lyrics are sung to Paula by Zack, rather that just being allowed to play in the background. It would be to harsh to suggest this tuner should be grounded, but there is some more training to do before it “gets jets.”