Anyone old enough to remember the 1982 film starring Richard Gere and Debra Winger will be delighted to learn that nothing has really changed in the best part of 40 years. According to the movie's screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart, he has spent fifteen years searching for someone who shared his vision of turning the script into a musical by not changing it noticeably. Nikolai Foster, artistic director at Leicester's Curve, was that someone.
What Foster and his team have done to create this world premiere is fill the story with authentically period chart hits, making it a veritable festival of nostalgia. And yes, in case you're wondering, that iconic final scene of the film remains in the stage version too, predictably bringing the biggest audience reaction of the night.
The autobiographical story of US naval officer recruits and their wayward love lives turned out to be a surprise hit, even garnering an Oscar nomination for its writer, who has also co-authored the new adaptation. It's just about possible that the good-natured plundering of rose-tinted memories will provide the same outcome for the musical's forthcoming tour, but it'll be primarily on the strength of the selected songs and the enthusiastic delivery of the large cast.
The idea of using period pop to supply the music for a musical adaptation of a fondly-remembered film is not new: over recent years we've seen Dirty Dancing and The Bodyguard, among others, undergo similar treatment. The problem with this approach is that pop songs are not musical theatre songs, and crowbarring them into service in a bid to tell a story is fraught with danger.
Here, for instance, the original lyrics rarely suit the moments they're intended to illustrate. The result is that they vary from the meaningless or ill-fitting in their context ("Family Man" and "You're the Voice", for example, are particularly jarring) to the comical, such as the evil drill sergeant greeting his trainees' impending graduation with a rendition of "The Final Countdown".
Away from the creaky structural wranglings, however, there's much to enjoy in Foster's large-scale production. Vocally, the cast are put through their paces as hard as any navy recruit and Emma Williams meets all the demands placed on her as the conflicted factory worker Paula. Opposite her, Jonny Fines as the rebellious young officer trainee with a whole bag of chips on his shoulder sings powerfully, even if he doesn't have the bad-boy twinkle of Richard Gere.
Musically, Sarah Travis has overseen arrangements and orchestrations of interest and intelligence, played impeccably by the nine-piece band under Michael Riley, and the impressive delivery of the familiar numbers is one of the great highlights of the show.
There's a surprisingly downbeat design from Michael Taylor – slabs of drab grey and industrial colourlessness – but it all counts for nothing when that last moment arrives. It may not have been completely earned by the previous two-and-a-half hours but you love it when it comes.