Friday, July 20, 2012

Off-Broadway: New Musical "Dogfight"

Mendez and Klena in Dogfight (photo: Joan Marcus)
Starring Annaleigh Ashford, Nick Blaemire, Derek Klena, Lindsay Mendez, Josh Segarra
Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul; book by Peter Duchan
Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli; directed by Joe Mantello
Previews began June 27, 2012; opened July 16; closes August 19
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

Based on a 1991 movie starring the late River Phoenix and Lili Taylor, the new musical Dogfight starts sordidly and ends romantically, its title referring to a contest by a group of Marines on leave before shipping out from San Francisco to Japan on their way to Vietnam, conveniently on Nov. 21, 1963, the day before JFK’s murder: whoever brings the ugliest local girl to their party wins the monetary prize.

Our hero, Eddie Birdlace, a nice Buffalo boy, meets Rose Fenny, a chubby waitress at her mom’s diner, and asks her to the party. Even though he easily trades profanities and insults with his buddies, he has a soft side: twice he has qualms about bringing Rose to the contest, but ends up doing so anyway. After they lose (to another Marine who paid a hooker with horrible teeth to be his date), Rose discovers the horrible truth, slaps Eddie and storms off.

Eddie can’t shake his feelings for the dowdy Rose and makes it up to her: they go on a date which starts inauspiciously at a fancy restaurant when Eddie threatens a snippy maitre’d/waiter, but they soon find their footing and fall for each other. (that she improbably bursts out with a string of profanities while ordering delights him no end.) After a romantic night in Rose’s room—where she, a kind of budding Joni Mitchell, plays him a new song of hers on the guitar—he ships off to Vietnam and real slaughter, where he loses his closest friends, Bernstein and Bolan. They were “The Three B’s,” memorialized on his arm in the form of a tattoo.

After returning to the States physically and emotionally crippled—and spat at by an uncaring public—Eddie searches out Rose, whom he never contacted after tearing up her address in embarrassment when Bolan discovers it, which leads to a bittersweet ending.

Dogfight honestly earns its emotions through Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s songs, which are never less than decent and, in a couple instances (notably Rose’s solos “Nothing Short of Wonderful” and “Before It’s Over”), quite nicely turned. Derek Klena (Eddie) and especially Lindsay Mendez (Rose) are sweetly believable in the leads: while Klena subtly balances the tough marine and tender young man, Mendez thoughtfully portrays inner beauty triumphing over an ordinary exterior.

Joe Mantello directs persuasively—except for a woefully misconceived, overdone Vietnam sequence—and Christopher Gattelli’s choreography is muted but effective. If Peter Duchan’s book can’t square the men’s abhorrently sexist behavior with the budding romance that develops, that was also a problem with the movie, where Phoenix and Taylor made a convincing pair. Despite such built-in flaws, Klena and Mendez make Dogfight worth seeing.

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