A mean-spirited U.S. Marine “tradition” yields unexpectedly touching romantic results in Dogfight, the Louise Lortel Award-winning Outstanding Musical of 2012, now being given a powerful Los Angeles and Orange County Premiere by Anaheim Hills’ illustrious Chance Theater.

Dogfight006 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 (Andrew Puente at the Chance) like a harmless rite of passage to invite a clueless Rose (Ashley Arlene Nelson) 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 soon-to-be-tested soul) that gives Dogfight its emotional punch.

Dogfight005 Peter Duchan’s Outer Critics Circle Award-nominated book sticks close to Bob Comfort’s screenplay, while jettisoning the movie’s Kennedy Assassination Eve-specific time frame and bookending the musical with scenes of Eddie bussing back to San Francisco in 1967.

Still, it’s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s memorable collection of songs (the catchy-as-all-get-out “Hey, Good-Lookin’” and “Come To A Party,” the uber-romantic ‘60s-style “That Face,” the show-stopping “Dogfight,” the downright exquisite “Nothing Short Of Wonderful,” and the heartbreaking “Pretty Funny” among them) that give the musical its emotional heart and punch.

Matthew McCray directs Dogfight with abundant imagination and flair, and he has been blessed by a splendid (and gratifyingly ethnically diverse) cast of Chance vets and newbies.

Puente does revelatory work as Eddie, taking us from the fledgling Marine’s initial bravado to the revelation of hidden fears and a heart not yet scarred or hardened by combat.

Dogfight002 Nelson matches him every step of the way as a young woman whose outward toughness serves as armor for a tender, easily wounded heart.

The duo display palpable romantic chemistry, reveal delightful comedic chops in a hilariously profanity-packed restaurant scene, and ace their act-climatic solos, Nelson’s heartbreaking “Pretty Funny” and Puente’s gut-wrenching “Come Back.”

Dogfight003 Among Eddie’s fellow jarheads, James McHale’s uber-macho Boland and Jonathan Rosario’s eager-to-be devirginized Bernstein get the most stage time, and both are terrific, with Joseph Ott (Gibbs), David Sasik (Stevens), and John Wells III (Factor) filling their Marine boots to perfection in addition to embodying various civilian cameos.

Robin Walton delights as a not-so-velvet-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 ’67.

Dogfight007 As for Dogfight’s supporting female contingent, Kim Dalton (Marcy, etc.), Monika Pena (Peggy, etc.), Nohely Quiroz (Ruth Two Bears, etc.), and Cassandra Rieck (Mama, Suzette, etc.) all do topnotch work, with special snaps to petite, big-voiced Dalton, who gets to play both pretty girl and dentally-challenged prostitute, and whose rendition of Dogfight’s title song brings down the house. (Quiroz’s socially inept Native American is a hoot as well.)

Angeline Mirenda’s testosterone-fueled choreography finds ways even for a sextet of recently inducted Marines in search of “Some Kinda Time” on their last night in Frisco to show off some fancy footwork.

Music director Taylor Stephenson not only insures fine cast vocals but conducts and plays keyboards in Dogfight’s pitch-perfect live band, completed by Jimmy Cormier, Lois Good, and Jorge Zuniga, who give the musical a cinematic underscoring virtually throughout.

Scenic designer Christopher Scott Murillo evokes the 1960s through shapes and colors in his ingenious, multi-locale set as does costume designer Christina Marie Perez with her retro outfits and military uniforms.

Lighting designer KC Wilkerson and sound designer Ryan Brodkin join forces to stunning effect, and never more so than in a two-minute Act Two sequence that packs a bona fide emotional wallop, one that lingers thanks to a daring directorial choice that makes a Vietnam vet’s return to civilian life all the more heartrending.

Courtny Greenough is stage manager.

Dogfight001 Dogfight may be set a half-century ago (in what to younger audience members must seem distant American history), but it resonates every bit as strongly in 2016 and will continue to do so as long as Marine recruits keep on shipping off to war and coming back with more than physical scars.

Its LA/OC Premiere is Chance Theater at its outstanding best.

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Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.

–Steven Stanley
February 14, 2016
Photos: True Image Studio

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