Perhaps you’ve heard the term “jukebox musical.” Typically, it’s a show that takes a group of well-known songs from a particular artist or genre and stitches them together with a new story. For instance, there’s MAMMA MIA!, taking a group of songs by Abba and building them into a story about a young girl about to be married who wants her dad – one of three of her mom’s suitors from two decades earlier – to give her away. Or there’s MOVIN’ OUT, which took some Billy Joel songs and built a story about a generation of Long Islanders dealing with growing up and the Vietnam War.

In a way, the musical version of AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN on stage at the Providence Performing Arts Center through Sunday, February 20 is a reverse jukebox musical. The producers took an established story – the screenplay from the 1982 movie starring Richard Gere, Debra Winger and Louis Gossett Jr – and punctuated it with a soundtrack from the 80s.

The story remains the same. Zack Mayo wants to fly jets, and he figures the best way to accomplish that is through the Navy’s Officer Candidate School. He’s smart, strong, and self-centered. Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley takes an instant dislike to Mayo, recognizing his lack of character. “For the next 12 weeks, I’m going to be your worst nightmare,” promises Foley.

National Touring Company of “An Officer and a Gentleman (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

As Zack tries to coast through OCS, he falls for Paula, a local girl who works in a casket factory. Foley pushes Zack, trying to force him to drop out of the program. When Foley finally threatens to discharge Zack, Zack breaks, crying out, “I’ve got no place else to go.”

From that point on, we see a new Zack. He becomes a leader, graduates from OCS, and gets assigned to jet school. And he gets the girl. No spoilers here if you know the movie.

An announcement before the show tells you that the show doesn’t exactly follow the movie. For instance, the character Sid – played by David Keith in the movie – is a black man and the son of a vice-admiral. His relationship with the white Lynette has racial undertones, and there’s a lot of talk in the show about prejudice.

The show also features Seeger, a female candidate subjected to a lot of misogynistic comments, mostly delivered by Foley. I’m pretty sure the candidate class in the movie was all male. Minor changes, really, and producers are allowed a little literary license.

There are some terrific performances here, notably Mia Massaro as Paula, David Wayne Britton as Gunnery Sergeant Foley, Amaya White as Seeger, and Cameron Loyal as Sid. Britton is especially spot-on as the drill instructor, with some funny and biting lines. The fact that he’s a Navy veteran certainly didn’t hurt his portrayal.

So, does the reverse jukebox formula work? Yes and no. The show utilizes some well-known songs, like Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” Yes’s “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” and Styx’s “Renegade.” The tunes and lyrics are recognizable, so there’s no straining to recognize them.

But other songs are more obscure, songs like Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting,” Carly Simon’s “Do the Walls Come Down” and Rick Springfield’s “Hold On to Your Dream.” Straining to recognize them and follow the lyrics is distracting.

Of course, the show features “Up Where We Belong,” a duet by Jennifer Warnes and Joe Cocker that earned both a Grammy and an Academy Award. It’s sung by Zack (Wes Williams) and Paula toward the end of the first act. The arrangement is different from the original song, which I would dare call iconic. I found myself wishing they’d left the song along and sung it the way Warnes and Cocker did. But as I thought that, the show followed up with a dead-on performance of “Renegade.” So, we’ll call that didn’t work/ worked.

Overall, the musical version of “An Officer and a Gentleman” is decent entertainment. You know the story, you know some of the music, and there are some exceptional performances, including some very fine dancing.

An Officer and a Gentleman runs through Sunday, February 20 at the Providence Performing Arts Center. For tickets and information, call 401.421.ARTS or visit www.ppacri.org.

Frank O'Donnell

Frank O’Donnell has been writing features and reviews about the local entertainment scene for 20 years. In addition to that, he’s a stand-up comic, comedy writer, actor, playwright, compliance officer, butterfly whisperer and president of the Keri Anne O’Donnell Memorial Fund. #KeepingPassionForPerformanceAlive.