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A CurtainUp Review
Perhaps foremost among the many qualities and disarming endearments that make Dogfight a highlight of the summer theater season is that it boasts a wonderfully melodic, soft rock era-defining score. It's a collaboration by Peter Duchan (book) and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics), all of whom are receiving their professional New York stage debuts.
I came across and enjoyed the 1991 film that starred River Phoenix and Lily Taylor quite by accident on TV. But even without that happenstance viewing , this musical adaptation (based on the original screenplay by Bob Comfort) has the advantage of director Joe Mantello’s keenly focused embrace of the tender central relationship. It's also invigorated by the impact of choreographer Christopher Gattelli’s thrilling envisioning of men in war. That it has a cast as well as production values that could hardly be improved upon are decided pluses.
Set during the 1960s, the musical’s plot allows for some insignificant changes from the film. It concerns the evolving romance between a good-looking young Marine Private First Class Eddie Birdlace (Derek Klena) and self described “ugly, pathetic fat girl” diner waitress Rose Fenny (Lindsay Mendez). Eddie is determined to spend the last night before his deployment to Southeast Asia looking for fun in the company of two of his buddies from boot camp Bernstein (Nick Blaemire) and Boland (Josh Segarra). Initially Eddie is a willing participant in their quest for a night of debauchery on the streets of San Francisco that includes getting tattoos that will forever mark their camaraderie.
Th eir early evening plans include other Marines. They go out simply for sport, prowling for dates with the ugliest women they can find and bring them back to a dance club that they have rented for the evening. After drinks and dancing, the Marines vote to reward the one who has found the ugliest date with a pool of money to which they have each contributed. The title of the musical refers to the hoax perpetrated on the unsuspecting women. This cruel game backfires in numerous ways, but mainly for Eddie who soon enough not only regrets his behavior, but also reconsiders his feelings for Rose.
Despite learning of the immature Eddie’s deception while in the club’s ladies room with Marcy (a terrific performance by Annaleigh Ashford), a garish prostitute who has been paid by Boland, the compassionate and idealistic Rose, is willing to give this apologetic jerk another chance. In doing so, she sets in motion a relationship that deepens meaningfully during the course of one night.
Klena, who made his New York theater debut in the Off-Broadway revival of Carrie earns our empathy the hard way as Eddie, as he develops awkwardly but steadily from being a reckless and callow fellow into one whose eventual maturity and capacity for love also comes with not being spared the wounds of war. If we have to stretch our imagination a bit to accept the immediately adorable Mendez as a dog, it is not a stretch for us to see that her affecting portrayal of Rose will be high on the list of outstanding performances come next spring.
Mendez, who also strums the guitar quite commendably, has been given some really lovely ballads to sing: “Nothing Short of Wonderful” in which she can hardly believe that she has been asked on a date, and the obligatory heart-breaker “Pretty Funny.” Chemistry is everything on the stage, and Klena and Mendez combine organically and in fine voice particularly in the self-explanatory duet “Come to a Party” and later in the gorgeous “First Date/last Night” set in Rose’s bedroom above the diner where she works and lives with Mama (Becca Ayers).
Josh Segarra, who made an impressive Broadway debut as the lead male in the short-lived Lysistrata Jones is excellent as the tough-as-nails, deceitful Boland whose uncompromising nature works as a nice balance to Blaemire’s jumpy and erratic Bernstein. Two songs that effectively establish the bond between the Marines include “Some Kinda Time” and “Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade.”
The potential for comedy is not lost and elicits the biggest response in a scene in a fancy restaurant in which Eddie’s casual use of profanity — just this side of being labeled a slight case of Tourette Syndrome – provokes a hilarious response from both Rose and an uppity waiter. Among the more wrenching scenes is one of men in battle composed of a series of rapidly deployed tableaux that is extraordinarily vivid as well as painfully sad. It is enhanced, as are all the scenes, by lighting designer Paul Gallo.
If designer David Zinn’s unit setting has a familiar frame with its metal bridge and the various locations identified by neon lights, it also makes effective use of a turntable. Zinn also designed the period-perfect costumes. Dogfight is further proof that a familiar frame can hold some exceptional as well as memorable artistry.
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