Addison — Envisioning what kind of theater work Dogfight would be, given the furious title and seeing strapping young men dressed as Marines strutting around, makes it all the more surprising to find a tender and endearing musical take on young love wrapped up in the end of innocence.
WaterTower Theatre’s final show of the season, with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, book by Peter Duchan and based on the Warner Bros. film and screenplay by Bob Comfort, tackles those themes amid the heady backdrop of the Vietnam Era. Director Terry Martin squeezes every touchy and touching nuance out of the source material and creates a world where youthful machismo begins to transform into sympathy tempered by mutual understanding and the experiences of war.
The original Dogfight was a rather small movie lost among the 1991 powerhouses of Terminator 2, Beauty and the Beast, JFK and The Silence of the Lambs. It was memorable mainly for Lili Taylor and River Phoenix’s (one of his last) performances and a seriously good soundtrack filled with songs by Dylan, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters and Pete Seeger. The theatrical adaptation of Dogfight debuted at New York City’s Second Stage Theatre to critical acclaim and even spawned an original cast recording in 2013.
The plots of both iterations are quite similar, even sharing much of the same dialogue; however, Pasek and Paul’s original songs allow the characters to develop more depth and expression than was possible in the film. Musical director Mark Mullino leads and plays piano in a live orchestra that includes Tyler Hagen (bass), Jay Majernik (Drums), Jordan Cleaver (Cello), Dennis Langevin (guitar), and Katrina Kratzer (violin).
Eddie Birdlace (Zak Reynolds), Boland (Kyle Igneczi), and Bernstein (Matt Ransdell, Jr.) are part of the “three bees,” friends who met in Marine Corps training and are about to ship out of San Francisco in 1963 to “this little country near India called Vietnam.” The young men mark the auspicious occasion by participating in a “dogfight,” a kind of dance party where the Marines compete to see who can bring the ugliest date to win a cash prize. Birdlace finds sweet wallflower, Rose (Juliette Talley) toiling in her mother’s diner and decides, almost reluctantly, to take her as his date to the competition. What ensues is not as predictable as one would think and the production as crafted by Martin and company is deeply satisfying.
Much of the enjoyment of the show comes from the awkward yet sincere chemistry between leads Talley and Reynolds. Their voices soar to the rafters and enchant in all of their songs but particularly in their duet “First Date, Last Night.” Talley charms and tames the angry, cocky and coarse yet sensitive Birdlace and shows him a world worth fighting for and coming back to.
Igneczi and Ransdell’s characters provide opposite spectrum counterpoints by being too hard (Boland) or too timid (Bernstein) with Ransdell as a gem of comedic relief in his commitment to the be-goggled worrywart. Marcy (Beth Albright) is also hilarious as a hooker with heaps of attitude. She may sound a bit like a Boston version of Rosie Perez but she sasses with the best of them.
The look of the show is also fantastic with Michael Robinson’s period costumes (the Marines even sport proper high-and-tight haircuts), a multi-colored set with cut-out rectangles and projected streetlight images (by Michael Sullivan), and Jason Foster’s moody lights.
The show begins with spots on Talley strumming the acoustic guitar to the prelude version of “Take Me Back,” and much of the rest of the cast soon join her in dolorous, slow harmonies. The same song comprises the finale and although it has that same sad tone, our shared experiences along this dramatic journey have tempered the meanings of the music and words into something even more beautiful and insightful. “Semper fi, do or die!”
» Read our interview with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul