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Review: An Officer and a Gentleman at Liverpool Empire ***

The 1980s were bookended by two great cinematic slices of audience wish-fulfilment.

One was in 1987 when Patrick Swayze opined that ‘nobody puts Baby in the corner’, before dirty dancing off in to the sunset with Jennifer Grey.

And the other came five years earlier, when Richard Gere’s dashing aviation officer swept Debra Winger’s feisty factory worker in to his arms and away from her mundane life in the paper mill.

All roads in An Officer and a Gentleman, receiving its inaugural UK tour, might lead to that final moment, but it treads a somewhat darker path than that of Dirty Dancing.

Everyone has something to prove, from the rag tag bunch of air training candidates to their snarling gunnery sergeant Foley (Ray Shell here holding his own against the memory of Louis Gossett Jr’s Oscar-winning turn), ambitions to improve their lot (the girls who dream of bagging themselves a budding air ace), disappointments and vulnerability.

Recruits and Sgt Foley. Top: Zack (Jonny Fines) and Paula (Emma Williams). Pics: Manuel Harlan

Zack Mayo (Jonny Fines) is a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who is trying to shake off his troubled upbringing to become a Navy pilot. Paula Pokrifki is the girl from the mill with dreams of swapping paper packing for noble nursing.

They meet, they fall in to bed (there's a rather awkward-to-watch stage sex scene in the second half), they fall in love – and they fall out. The course of true love never did run smooth.

Emma Williams shines as the perky Paula who determines not to get emotionally involved but can’t help herself, and she delivers a powerhouse, throat-flaying performance of Heart’s 1987 song Alone. Fines has a trickier challenge in having to overcome both the unlikeable parts of his character Mayo, and the ghost of Richard Gere hovering at his shoulder. If he doesn't always succeed, he certainly gives it a good shot.

The plot and dialogue stick closely to the original film, but the only number to survive from screen to stage is Up Where We Belong.

An Officer and a Gentleman. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Elsewhere, the story unfolds in often visually striking fashion and to a series of mostly 80s and early 90s rock numbers and power ballads – I Want to Know What Love Is, Blaze of Glory, The Final Countdown, Livin’ On a Prayer – that are thumpingly loud and as outrageously overblown as a windswept bubble perm, and yet still strangely unmoving.

It appears a case of being full of sound and fury – signifying nothing.

Director Nikolai Foster, no stranger to a big musical, keeps the narrative pace moving along, the scenes, physical squaddie segments – no bone spurs here - and songs (and some very lame stage combat) unfolding on Michael Taylor’s compact but versatile industrial-style set which has a tall, revolving metal staircase at its core.

While the road may be long, and there are definitely some mountains in the way, in the end, love lifts the audience up where it longs to belong.

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