Dogfight, the Louise Lortel Award-winning Outstanding Musical of 2012, has at long last arrived in Southern California at San Diego’s Cygnet Theatre in a production that is (to quote from one of the show’s best songs) “Nothing Short Of Wonderful.”
Movie buffs will recall Dogfight as the 1991 sleeper that starred a then 20-year-old River Phoenix as Vietnam-bound Marine Eddie Birdlace and 24-year-old Lili Taylor as a Plain Jane San Francisco waitress named Rose Fenny, the unwitting victim of a cruel joke perpetrated by Eddie and his jarhead buddies on the eve of their departure for Southeast Asia circa 1963.
It may seem to Eddie (Patrick Osteen on the Cygnet stage) like a harmless Marine tradition to invite a clueless Rose (Caitie Grady) to the musical’s titular “dogfight” in hopes of pocketing several hundred bucks for finding the ugliest girl in town, the winner to be determined at a “competition” held in a local bar.
For Rose, however, it’s a homely girl’s dream come true, and it is Eddie’s gradual realization that the “dog” he’s picked is a living, breathing, emotion-feeling human being (and just maybe one who will touch his own scarred soul) that gives Dogfight its emotional punch.
This song-and-dance number is but the first to showcase choreographer David Brannen’s macho moves, followed by “Hey, Good-Lookin’,” which has Eddie and his buds trying out pickup lines like, “Pretty thing like you? No husband, no fiancé, no boyfriend? Well, if you ain’t a lesbian, my name’s Eddie Birdlace.”
What girl could resist?
Well, Rose could, though she does eventually give in and agree to be Eddie’s date, and despite a maroon bridesmaid’s dress and overly ratted hair that are eyesores of the first order, Marine and waitress are soon headed out on her first date ever.
Anyone who thinks that Rose won’t find out what’s what is living in as much of a fantasy world as our introspective, Pete Seeger-loving heroine has up until now.
As for what happens in Act Two after Rose wises up to the cruelty she’s fallen victim to … Well, it’s post intermission that Dogfight becomes the deeply moving musical you have hoped all along it will be.
It helps enormously to have source material as strong as movie director Nancy Savoca’s Dogfight, adeptly adapted for the musical stage by Outer Critics Circle Award-nominated book writer Peter Duchan, who sticks close to Bob Comfort’s screenplay (though he does jettison the movie’s Kennedy Assassination Eve-specific time frame and bookends the musical with scenes of Eddie bussing back to San Francisco in 1968).
Powerful book or not, Dogfight The Musical wouldn’t have taken flight off-Broadway, nor inspired productions in London, Sydney, Amsterdam, and now San Diego without Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s memorable collection of songs, every bit as gorgeous as the 30-year-old duo who wrote the show (along with A Christmas Story, Edges, James And The Giant Peach, and songs on TV’s Smash).
From the catchy-as-all-get-out “Hey, Good-Lookin’” and “Come To A Party” to the uber-romantic ‘60s-style “That Face” to show-stopping “Dogfight” to the downright exquisite “Nothing Short Of Wonderful” to the heartbreaking “Pretty Funny,” this is a score to be listened to again and again, and one that earned its writers their own Outer Critics Circle Award nomination.
Cygnet Theatre Artistic Director Sean Murray directs Dogfight with assurance, imagination, sensitivity, and flair, aided and abetted by a cast of mostly San Diego-based triple-threats, nine performers who can hold their own against any New York City cast, thank you very much.
That being said, I’ll gladly welcome visiting New York adoptee Osteen to SoCal any time, so sensational is his performance as Eddie, a role Murray might have been tempted to cast with a Chace Crawford type that audiences would instantly trust to “shape up” despite his willingness to dogfight. Osteen has enough of a Ryan Gosling edge that you feel it could go either way, making any transformation he undergoes all the more powerful. That the North Carolina native has terrific looks, charismatic stage presence, topnotch acting chops, and a voice to do Pasek & Paul justice, and you’ve got a couldn’t-be-better leading man.
As for San Diego favorite Grady (who like her female castmates must be considerably “plained down” to play Rose), hers is as winning a lead performance by an actress as you’ll see any time soon. Using toughness as armor for a tender, easily wounded heart, and more than able to give as good as she gets (the restaurant scene is a hoot), Grady’s Rose will have you rooting for her from the get-go, regardless of how her date with Eddie goes, and like her costar, she sings splendidly, with special snaps for an Act One-closing “Pretty Funny” that will break your heart.
Among Eddie’s fellow jarheads, Alex Hoeffler’s uber-macho Boland and Scott Nickley’s eager-to-be devirginized Bernstein get the most stage time, and both are standouts, with Charles Evans, Jr. (Factor), Ben Gibson (Gibbs), and Eric Von Metzke (Stevens) filling their Marine boots to perfection in addition to various civilian cameos.
Bryan Charles Feldman excels too as a vevet-voiced Lounge Singer in addition to the tattoo artist who gives Birdlace, Boland, and Bernstein their “three bees” and the former soldier whose ear Eddie bends circa ’68.
As for Dogfight’s supporting female contingent, Mel Domingo (Ruth Two Bears, etc.), Sarah Errington (Marcy, etc.), and Debra Wanger (Mama, Suzette, etc.) are tops as well, with special snaps to the power-piped Errington, who gets to play both pretty girl and dentally-challenged prostitute (among others), and whose rendition of Dogfight’s title song earns deserved cheers.
Music director Terry O’Donnell scores high marks for cast vocals, with Patrick Marion conducting and playing keyboards in Dogfight’s pitch-perfect live band, completed by Nathan Hubbard, Kevin Jones, Sean Laperruque, Martin Martiarena, and Sharon Taylor, who give the musical a cinematic underscoring virtually throughout.
Inspired by his parents’ Kodachrome slides of 1960s San Francisco, scenic designer Sean Fanning has created a multilevel set that evokes that bygone time and place, exquisitely lit by lighting designer Chris Rynne. Costume designer Jacinda Johnston-Fischer’s retro outfits and military uniforms and Peter Herman’s period wigs and makeup take us back in time as well as do properties designer Syd Stevens’ 60s knickknacks. David Scott’s impeccable sound design completes Cygnet’s Grade A production design.
Anthony Methvin is assistant director. Maria Mangiavellano is stage manager and Marie Jahelka assistant stage manager. Additional program credits are shared by fight choreographer Osteen, dramaturg Taylor Wycoff, production assistant Marguerite Sudgeon, and production intern Whitney Carter.
Dogfight opens a Cygnet Theatre season that includes a pair of little-seen Noel Coward gems in rotating rep, The Rocky Horror Show, and the L.A. smash Stupid Fucking Bird. If what follows Dogfight even approaches what the season opener delivers, San Diegans (and road-tripping Angelinos) are in for a year-long treat.
Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St., San Diego.
July 25, 2105
Photos: Ken Jacques