Monday, July 16, 2012

Dogfight: Heartbreak & Heartache

Before you roll your eyes at the idea of another musical based on a movie, I suggest you buy a ticket to the delicate and fantastic Dogfight. The creative team has created a show that feels like every contradictory, painful, and lovely moment of an awkward teen romance.  From butterflies in your stomach, to crushing disappointment, to tentative emotional and physical exploration, Dogfight rises above the usual musical theater fray with precious affection and authenticity.   

Directed by Joe Mantello, it is based on the 1991 film by Nancy Savoca (screenplay by Bob Comfort) but it has been adapted into a musical by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics), with a book by Peter Duchan.  I remember the small film starring Lily Taylor (as an aside--she was someone I worked with once and adored) and River Phoenix.  It was a tiny, tiny indie movie but one with great bones.  It provides a terrific framework for a musical.

The real strength here is a stellar cast who get to dig into an edgy and funny book.  Who ever compliments the book of a musical?  Me that's who.  This is a great book.  So good that some old man sitting next me to complained to his wife that this show didn't even need music.  I'd like to think this was a backhanded compliment to Mr. Duchan (and not an insult to the music and lyrics).  The writing gives the characters authentic, raw voices and a solid emotional foundation.  The music builds from there.

The songs are not as lyrically and structurally audacious as Sondheim and the music does not push any genre envelopes like the recent February House.  But the songs serve the story and give another layer for the cast to give their characters musical voices.  For a show that could be downbeat and challenging, there were a lot of peppy numbers interspersed with moving ballads.  The music does what it is supposed to do without overwhelming the exquisite soufflĂ© of a story.

My Dad at Marine Corps basic training.
The setting is 1963 in San Francisco.  A group of Marines are on leave for one last wild night out before they ship out to Southeast Asia.  The heartbreaking and generous Lindsay Mendez leads the cast as Rose Fenny.  She's a quiet folk singer who gets asked out on a date by the devilishly handsome Eddie (Derek Klena).  She agrees but does not realize she is Eddie's candidate for a "dogfight."  Eddie and his Marine buddies Bernstein (Nick Blaemire) and Boland (John Segarra) have a bet on who can ask out the ugliest girl.  The winner of this "dogfight" takes home a big cash prize.  Excited to be asked out on her first date, Rose is in secret competition with working girl Marcy (Annaleigh Ashford) and a generally silent Native American girl (Dierdre Friel).

I have seen Mendez in several concerts as well as on Broadway in Godspell.  She can burn a house down with her powerful belt and can perform a range of musical styles.  Her concert persona is fun and effervescent.  Here, as Rose, she is dowdy, introverted and understated.  Her voice is unquestionably beautiful but it's her acting that will stay with you after leaving the theater.  She makes you care about Rose.  She opens up her broken heart of disappointment after she is confronted with Eddie's cavalier cruelty.  But she does not go down quietly or meekly.  It's that passion and fire that makes her character stand out to the audience as well as Eddie.  Mendez brings intelligence to her shy character and provides the layers to Rose that make it clear why Eddie has mixed emotions about inviting her to the dogfight (a scene that had my stomach in knots--the good kind).

Klena was most recently in the revival of Carrie.  Others found him a bit stiff in that show, but I thought he was a handsome cipher in a woefully underwritten role there.  Here, he gives Eddie a soul.  He can be the fun-loving scamp with his friends or the thoughtful, confused young man trying to figure out his place in world.  He shines a light on the child within his character: the bewildered, immature boy on the edge of manhood.  There were moments that he reminded me of River Phoenix and there really can't be a greater compliment than that. 

Josh Segarra was charismatic and ruthless in his supporting role as Boland.  Annaleigh Ashford (who I did not like at all in Rent) was practically unrecognizable here.  She stole every scene she was in.  Hilarious and biting, she had some of the best lines in the show.  But where her character could have been caricature somehow she reigned it in and was just the voice of reason.

The show benefits from great movement by recent Tony-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli (Newsies) largely working with the male ensemble. 

Without the gentle guidance and direction of Joe Mantello I am convinced this show would not have worked so well.  Each scene feels natural and the tension builds gradually and epically.  There are some (intentionally) cringe-worthy moments of awkwardness in this little romance.  When the story becomes more challenging to tell, Mantello keeps us focused and invested.  

The show seemed to struggle to bring all this to a natural close but the journey there was beautiful.  Prepare to have your heart broken by Dogfight in the best possible way.

1 comment:

  1. Agree with almost everything here, except I still can't stand Annaleigh Ashford. The audience laughed at everything she did, but I find her painfully unfunny.