Composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and librettist Peter Duchan’s compelling, unnerving and romantic 2012 off-Broadway musical “Dogfight” receives a terrific regional premiere courtesy of Dare to Defy Productions in the Mathile Theatre of the Schuster Center.
Based on the 1991 film of the same name and set in 1960s San Francisco, “Dogfight,” deftly directed by Angie Thacker, is craftily told in flashback. At the center is a trio of young marines nicknamed The Three Bees: Eddie Birdlace, distraught and disillusioned; Boland, viewing duty to country and comrades as chief above all; and Bernstein, a straight-laced nerd determined to lose his virginity. Before deploying to seemingly uneventful Vietnam, they decide to have one final evening of rowdy fun by coordinating a dogfight, a mean game in which each member seeks to bring the ugliest date to a party and earn the collected winnings. However, when Eddie chooses shy waitress Rose Fenny, he inadvertently makes a much-needed leap into adulthood bolstered by valuable lessons in tolerance and acceptance. In fact, during one pivotal moment, Eddie adamantly tells Rose, “I don’t care what you look like.” She responds, “I wish you would.” At the outset, the story hints that not all will end well for Eddie or his close band of brothers (an unfortunately underwritten group), especially as views of patriotism and Vietnam shift greatly during its course. Nonetheless, there is hope that through Rose’s influence, a redemptive Eddie will become a better man, perhaps fulfilling his purpose beyond what he originally thought possible.
Long before Pasek and Paul took Hollywood by storm winning an Academy Award for writing the lyrics to “City of Stars” from “La La Land,” they molded their witty and insightful character-driven songwriting here with many Broadway and pop/rock influences. Eddie and Rose’s “Come to a Party” contains conversational shades of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent.” Rose’s beguiling and introspectively jumpy “Nothing Short of Wonderful” recalls the works of Stephen Sondheim and Adam Guettel. The rousing “Hey, Good Lookin’” and the thrilling yet devastatingly false anthem “Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade,” defiantly warning “no confetti for the boys who stayed,” fits comfortably into Billy Joel and Jason Robert Brown’s wheelhouse. Pasek and Paul could win a Tony and Pulitzer Prize this spring for their luminous hit “Dear Evan Hansen,” but “Dogfight” remains a signature moment of evolution for their fantastic partnership.
The outstanding duo of Ray Zupp and Mackensie King are perfectly compatible while navigating the complexities within Eddie and Rose. Zupp, arrogant yet tender with sharp intensity, truly masters Eddie’s charming duality of appearing brutish with his buddies and outright vulnerable with Rose. He also vividly expresses Eddie’s insecure quandary of holding tightly to his tough guy façade when he’s actually attempting to simply figure out his place in the world. In one of her finest roles, King, appropriately introverted but far from a pushover, accomplishes the feat of ensuring the emotionally wounded Rose is credibly openhearted enough to look past Eddie’s immaturity and recognize his potential. It’s tough to love a jerk, but King’s grasp of Rose’s dilemma and her willingness to forgive resonates.
Thacker’s excellent, vocally strong cast is also filled with commendable featured players. The commanding Layne Roate dynamically intimidates with Southern swagger as cocky Boland. Bobby Mitchum, a bundle of energy and nervous trepidation, delights as bespectacled Bernstein. Tia Seay brings comedic flavor to her portrayal of shrewd and savvy Marcy, Boland’s deceitful date. Seay also joins King for a marvelous rendition of the fiery title song in which Marcy and Rose come to terms with the cruelty of the game. David Baker (Stevens), Jesse Daniel (Fector), Brett Norgaard (Gibbs), and TC Schreier provide enthusiastic vigor as fellow marines. Skyler McNeely offers lighthearted levity throughout in multiple roles. Danielle DeLorme (Mama), Samantha Creech (Ruth Two Bears) and Natalie Sanders are also effective, especially Creech’s funny choices during the dogfight.
In addition, Zupp’s striking scenic design, complete with a tattered American flag as an ominous backdrop, aptly evokes the memory play concept inherent in the material. Olivia Dakin’s fine assortment of period-appropriate wardrobe includes an endearingly tacky costume party outfit for King. Choreographer Lisa Glover skillfully establishes conversation in dance in the sprightly “Hey, Good-Lookin.’” Along with Lorri Topping’s music direction, the show notably features a six-piece orchestra accented with splendid piano accompaniment from conductor Nick Garvin.
“Dogfight” stings but it’s an unforgettable experience. Don’t miss it.
“Dogfight: The Musical” continues through April 8 inside the Mathile Theatre of the Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets, Dayton. Act One: 60 minutes; Act Two: 50 minutes. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets range from $19.50-$24.50. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit ticketcenterstage.com. The production contains adult themes and language. Patrons should also note understudy Jesse Daniel portrays Eddie Birdlace at the Saturday matinee.