Dogfight: Theater Review

The Hartman Group
Lindsay Mendez and Derek Klena
An odd, affecting little movie becomes an odd, affecting little musical that needs further work but is not without promise.

The 1991 Warner Bros. feature directed by Nancy Savoca and starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor has been adapted into an off-Broadway musical by up-and-coming composing team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

NEW YORK – Nancy Savoca’s underappreciated 1991 film Dogfight was an imperfect but poignant romance distinguished by achingly tender performances from Lili Taylor and River Phoenix. With help from ace director Joe Mantello (Wicked, Other Desert Cities) and a talented cast, the young writers have crafted a touching small-scale musical that mirrors many of the movie’s minor-key virtues. Further workshops or perhaps a regional production might be useful to smooth some nagging flaws, particularly in the uneven second act. But the potential is there.

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Like Savoca’s movie, the musical is set in San Francisco, mainly in 1963, and comprises two somewhat disjointed halves. The first act is a cruel joke against unattractive women, in which pre-feminism misogyny is fanned by the Marine mindset and its codes of masculinity and brotherhood. The second act shifts gears to chart the gentle blossoming of an awkward romance between chastened Marine Private First Class Eddie Birdlace (Derek Klena) and Rose Fenny (Lindsay Mendez), the folk music-loving waitress he humiliates in a degrading jarhead ritual.

That time-honored tradition, which gives the story its name, is a contest in which Marines chip in an entry fee of $50 to rent a bar for the night. The rest of the cash goes to prize money for the guy who recruits the ugliest date, with judging taking place during a slow dance. The women generally are unaware of the hidden agenda.

While the show drops any reference to the Kennedy assassination that took place one day after the events depicted here, Peter Duchan’s book mostly sticks close to Bob Comfort’s screenplay for the Savoca film. Rose discovers the real reason Eddie asked her out when scrappy hooker Marcy (Annaleigh Ashford, terrific) blurts out the truth after her date, Boland (Josh Segarra), tries to stiff her out of her agreed share of the prize money.

Boland, Birdlace and Bernstein (Nick Blaemire) -- the Marine buddies who call themselves the Three Bees (downsized from four in the movie) -- are presented as less-wholesome versions of the skirt-chasing sailors from On the Town. The dogfight is planned on the night before they ship out to Okinawa, and they hope from there to “this little country near India they call Vietnam.” The guys’ innocence about what’s in store for them is used to offset their insensitivity.

More Bobby Vee than Bob Dylan, the boys are oblivious to the changes blowing in the countercultural wind. They expect to return home to a hero’s welcome, never considering the possibility of death or of coming back to find themselves regarded by the peace movement as scorned symbols of an unnecessary conflict. Those nuances are not easy to put across in a musical, though Twyla Tharp’s Billy Joel dance show, Movin’ Out, managed it without dialogue.

The early establishing songs here by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are tuneful and engaging, choreographed with verve by Christopher Gattelli, fresh from his Tony win for Newsies. But there’s a worrying sense of guys-will-be-guys indulgence. The writers seem uncertain about how to balance the comedy with the inhumanity of the Marines’ behavior toward their frumpy dates. While the first act is musically the strongest, it could nonetheless use a few darker brushstrokes.

The show is on firmest ground when Eddie and Rose are center stage. The characters are drawn with subtle details, and there’s real vulnerability and yearning in the performances of Klena and Mendez (recently of Broadway’s Godspell revival).

Even early in the evening as he gets to know Rose, Eddie tries to back out of entering her in the dogfight, giving him a hint of redemption that his buddies lack. And while Rose is no mere pliant mouse, her hunger to be seen as a woman makes it believable when she’s willing to overlook the insult and give him a chance to make it up to her. Their upended expectations of his last night and her first date are played out with captivating delicacy.

There’s an undernourished feel to the social context of the second act, which often drags and occasionally slides into cliché. Some trimming would definitely improve things. The fact that Pasek, Paul and Duchan are all in their 20s might be significant. But beyond Mantello’s visceral staging of the Vietnam combat sequence, the evocation of the period and its momentous cultural shifts is a little feeble. The closing scene also needs work, trading the eloquent near-silence of the movie’s coda for an exchange that clouds the emotional impact.

Up-and-coming composer-lyricists Pasek and Paul are 2006 University of Michigan musical theater graduates who have garnered praise and multiple grants (including the prestigious Jonathan Larson Award) for their work. That includes the widely performed song cycle Edges, the touring musical A Christmas Story and another developing adaptation of James and the Giant Peach.

Their best songs here are the quieter, folkier numbers, many of which have a lovely conversational flow to them, enhanced by Michael Starobin’s liquid orchestrations for the six-piece band. When the composers aim to beef up dramatic texture by striving for Sondheim-ish dissonance, they tend to overreach, their work coming off as too studied. This is especially the case in the screechy title number sung by Marcy and Rose, which pushes themes that already have emerged organically. But there’s genuine talent here, and a facility for intimate storytelling that serves the romance well.

On a technical level, the production is top-notch. Designer David Zinn has built a central turntable with a wraparound scaffold of stairways and an upper deck backed by neon signage, and Mantello and Gattelli use the space to maximum effect in staging the musical numbers.

If the show is not quite there yet, it’s an intriguing piece with plenty of strong elements on which to build. Off-Broadway company Second Stage has been instrumental in hatching some idiosyncratic musicals, notably The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Next to Normal, the latter of which went on to be radically overhauled before reaching Broadway and winning a Pulitzer Prize. Whether Dogfight will have any kind of comparable life after this short premiere run depends on how willing the writers are to address tonal issues and tighten the show’s focus on Rose and Eddie.

So many musicals adapted from movies approach their source material less as a story than as a brand to be tapped and transferred to the stage in bolder, brighter colors -- think Sister Act, Legally Blonde, Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Dogfight belongs to a group that includes such shows as Once, Grey Gardens and hopefully the upcoming Far From Heaven, which take properties that don’t seem like automatic candidates for musical treatment and reinvent them in thoughtful ways. That’s a trend to be encouraged.

Venue: Second Stage Theatre, New York (runs through Aug. 19)
Cast: Lindsay Mendez, Derek Klena, Nick Blaemire, Josh Segarra, Annaleigh Ashford, Becca Ayers, Steven Booth, Dierdre Friel, Adam Halpin, F. Michael Haynie, James Moye
Director: Joe Mantello
Music and lyrics: Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
Book: Peter Duchan, based on Bob Comfort’s screenplay for the Warner Bros. film
Set and costume designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: Paul Gallo
Sound designer: Fitz Patton
Music director: Bryan Perri
Orchestrations: Michael Starobin
Vocal arrangements: Justin Paul
Choreographer: Christopher Gattelli
Presented by Second Stage Theatre.