I had a catch in my throat from the first song. DOGFIGHT was instantly, emotionally stirring, from its poignant opening ballad, wise book, smart, rousing choreography, perfect cast and chemistry– to its tender, heartbreaking conclusion.
The Award-winning Off-Broadway musical having its Boston professional premiere at SpeakEasy Stage is a deeply moving coming of age tale with two young lovers at the heart of a world on the brink. Most of the action is set on the evening of November 21, 1963; we know what’s coming and they don’t: the assassination of a dream, foreshadowing the historical earthquake that would split the 20th century in two:Viet Nam.
The show bookends its tragedy with a flashback from 1967 and a soldier’s chastened perspective as he returns from a journey begun 4 years earlier and ends up leading him much farther afield than anyone bargained for. He was one of a group of newly enlisted Marines with 13 weeks of training under their little belts, ready to flex their muscles in Viet Nam. But before being deployed, the boys have one last fling in San Francisco which includes a party with an “ugly” premise. It’s a contest and whoever brings the least attractive date to the dance wins. Clearly this “dogfight” is also mining the dark and dehumanizing terrain that allows one stranger to murder another in a bloody jungle far from home.
The soldier in question is Corporal Eddie Birdlace played by the sweet-voiced Jordan J. Ford, a wonderfully sympathetic young actor, sporting a crew cut on a baby face, rough and definitely not ready. He’s more vulnerable than he knows or lets on. He walks into a diner and meets the innocent, intelligent Rose a waitress/songwriter who’s got more on her mind than the pie she’s serving and can teach the soldier a thing or two about humanity. She’s as sweet as her name, a big girl with an angelic soprano who gets to Eddie in spite of himself, and to her surprise. He asks her to the “party” but as the evening goes on, he becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the cruelty of the enterprise.
Eddie’s pals, a classically colorful bunch of macho men off to war, are much cruder than he, priming the pump for the dark deeds abroad, but already numb to the “casual cruelty” they are about to inflict on their hapless dates who include the stone-faced Ruth Two Bears in braids and moccasins played with ultra funny deadpan by Jenna Lea Scott. Then there’s the raunchy, potty-mouthed Marcy, secretly in cahoots with one of the soldiers to win and split the pot. The beautiful and supremely gifted McCaela Donovan is hilarious as this lowdown, chain-smoking chick who wears a protruding gap-toothed prosthetic to insure her win as the ugliest girl in the room.
A word on actor Patrick Varner in 7 bit parts– from a weirdly moony lounge singer to the silliest snoot of a waiter who nearly stole the show. One look at him and the entire audience burst out laughing.
The action is fluidly directed director by Paul Daigneault who knows when to let it go, and when to stop and let things sink in. He makes full use of a double height black box with the audience on three sides, and an unseen live orchestra. Larry Sousa’s choreography takes place up, down, and all around a pair of tall rolling metal staircases and owes something to those rambunctious 40’s movie musicals about frisky soldiers cavorting about town, their movements echoed later in the formations of these very soldiers on the battle field in Viet Nam.
My one, somewhat major quibble — is the music. The score (music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul) is certainly serviceable and even mellifluous but not memorable. There are meandering melodies, hovering unpredictably between major and minor harmonies– but always as if in search of a hook. These charismatic performances and voices, however, held me fast.
There is a pivotal a scene in a restaurant where Rose and Eddie begin to navigate something new together, and suddenly find themselves in the grip of a potent chemistry. I was wrapped, seeing her through his eyes and him through hers for the first time. These two were splendidly in harmony, vocally and emotionally, and I was rooting for them every minute they were onstage together. DOGFIGHT, its graceful book by Peter Duchan, is ultimately a tale of budding compassion, intimate yet multilayered, which gradually blooms into rueful splendor in its final scene–and just about did me in. Don’t miss DOGFIGHT at SpeakEasy through June 4.