Patti Wilcox was pretty cheery when we chatted recently. “I’ve just arrived in Detroit and it’s great.”

When I pointed out that “Detroit” and “great” don’t often appear in the same sentence, she laughed. “It’s a good tour city, and it is the home of Motown, so…”

Wilcox is part of the creative team that put together the touring version of “An Officer & A Gentleman,” coming to the Providence Performing Arts Center next weekend.

A choreographer, Wilcox has been on the team since its beginning. “The director and writer is Dick Scanlon. He and I worked together on ‘Motown: The Musical’ and ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’” So when he asked if she’d be interested in being the choreographer on “An Officer & A Gentleman,” she leaped at the chance.

The musical is based on the 1982 film of the same name starring Richard Gere, Debra Winger and Louis Gossett Jr. The show focuses on Gere’s character’s experiences in the Navy’s Officer Candidate training.

To get the details right, Wilcox and the rest of the creative team visited Naval Station Newport to observe what goes on in the life of an officer candidate. “It’s the best research project I’ve ever done,” says Wilcox. “You think you understand what these people do and what they go through.” And then you find out you really don’t know.

Wilcox was impressed with the high caliber of the officer candidates. “They’re all college graduates, and it’s a tough process to get in. They’re all driven, future-focused, trying to do something transformative with their lives.”

An Officer and a Gentleman (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The creative team visited on a day called Battle Stations. “It’s the accumulation of weeks and weeks of training. We were able to observe their physical training at the start of the day, and then their breakout sessions. Classrooms were broken into groups doing virtual reality drills.”

Wilcox and her team watched as candidates went through Maneuvering Board Alerts, exercises in what to do when computer systems fail.

“We met with firefighters. That’s the biggest danger on a ship. Everyone is singularly focused to put out the fire, and work as a team. It’s very intense, and important to work as a unit. They all pay a lot of attention to working as collaborators.”

They observed a session called Buttercup, all about what happens when a ship starts to take on water. “Determining the damage, how to assess the damage, how to find solutions to the damage while the ship took on water.”

So how much of the visit to Naval Station Newport ended up in the show? “One of the things we brought back is Battle Stations. It’s the last step of their assessment, and they have to pass that to graduate. We take you through that journey in the show.”

Wilcox found it remarkable that the instructors took their candidates through fire, through taking on water, to abandoning ship so they would be able to lead their people forward. “We put as much of what we discovered that day into the show, both the physical and the mental aspect.”

An Officer and a Gentleman (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Wilcox believes that Scanlon “captured the passion of these people committing to the greater good.”

The challenge, she said, was juxtaposing that to the townspeople surrounding the base.

In the show, neither the base nor the town is specified. “It’s a generic spot, near the water.”

The timeframe isn’t really specified either – just that it happens in the 80s. “We’ve got a wonderful score” featuring songs from the 1980s. “It’s a tapestry of that time period, with forward-moving songs that lend themselves to dancing.”

Songs like “Renegade,” “Higher Love” and “Love is a Battlefield” are performed by the actors. Of course, the Oscar-winning “Up Where We Belong” is in the show.

“It’s a really exciting show,” says Wilcox. “It’s exciting to see these people represented truthfully.” And that’s thanks to the visit to Naval Station Newport and the Officer Candidates School.

[“An Officer & A Gentleman: The Musical” runs at the Providence Performing Arts Center February 18, 19 and 20. For tickets and information, call 401.421.ARS 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.

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