It’s taken five years for Dogfight, the Louise Lortel Award-winning Outstanding Musical of 2012, to finally make it to Los Angeles proper, and praise be the gods of L.A. musical theater, Dogfight’s Hudson Mainstage debut 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 (Payson Lewis at the Hudson) like a harmless rite of passage to invite a clueless Rose (Nicci Claspell) 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 lonely girl’s dream come true, and it is Eddie’s gradual realization that the “dog” he’s picked is a living, breathing, emotion-feeling, soul-touching human being (and a whole lot prettier than he’s initially given her credit for) that gives Dogfight its emotional punch.

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.

Dogfight marks producer Graham Wetterhahn and his After Hours Theatre Company’s return to the Hudson following memorable intimate stagings of tick, tick… BOOM! and I Love You Because, and production number three may well be the best of the bunch thanks to Dogfight’s all-around sensational cast, Jennifer Strattan and Jennifer Oundjian’s exciting, nuanced direction, the latter’s ingenious high-energy choreography, and musical director Elmo Zapp conducting the best six-piece band* in town.

Lewis once again electrifies as Eddie, whose initial bravado masks hidden fears and a heart not yet scarred or hardened by combat or softened by a girl named Rose, and like everyone else in this The Voice-ready cast, the rising stage-and-screen star’s vocals soar, and never more so than in the gut-wrenching eleventh-hour “Come Back.”

The infectiously winning Claspell matches her leading man every step of the way, giving us a Rose whose problems stem not from plainness (Claspell is too pretty to ever be plain) but from feeling out of place in a world that doesn’t value a young woman’s smarts (or her love for Seeger and Dylan) … and just wait till Claspell breaks your heart with “Nothing Short Of Wonderful” and “Before It’s Over.”

Lewis and Claspell’s romantic chemistry is palpable and their comedic chops sparkle, and never more so than when combining both in a hilariously profanity-packed restaurant scene opposite Peter Allen Vogt’s deliciously snooty waiter.

Spencer Strong Smith’s sexy swagger as Boland and Trent Mills’s lummoxy charm as Bernstein make scenes with Eddie’s fellow “Three Bs” crackle.

Fellow jarheads Everjohn Feliciano (Stevens), dance captain Erik Hall (Donavin), Harrison Meloeny (Gibbs), and Austin Powell (Fector) add macho flair to dance numbers like the testosterone-fueled “Some Kinda Time” (celebrating their last night in Frisco) and “Hey, Good-Lookin’,” which has Eddie and his buds trying out painfully bad pickup lines on Dogfight’s multi-talented female ensemble.

Stephanie Andersen (Mama), Emily Barnett (Chippy), Nevada Brandt (Female Soloist), Jilli Marine (Ruth Two Bears), Emily Morris (Marcy), and Aliya Stuart (Suzette) are each and every one terrific, and Morris brings down the house when her “dentally-challenged” hooker instructs a still naïve Rose in the “Dogfight” that is life as she knows it.

Vogt earns added cameo points for his not so velvet-voiced lounge singer, the tattoo artist who gives Birdlace, Boland, and Bernstein their “three bees,” and the former soldier whose ear Eddie bends circa ’68.

Design kudos are shared by Justin Ryan Brown for his hey-good-looking multi-level, multi-purpose set, Andrew Schmedake for his alternately dramatic, flashy, and subtle lighting, Julius Bronola for his nostalgic array of ‘60s fashions and military gear, hair designer Ariana Castiglia for ratting the girls’ bouffant dos and trimming the boys’ locks, Shen Heckel for his abundance of props, and Julia Pinhey for her crystal clear sound design, with stunt choreographer Jasiri Booker earning bonus points for some thrilling battle action.

Juliana Scott is stage manager. Dominic Matas is assistant choreographer and. Rebecca Kenigsberg is co-producer and Marc Heidel and Stephanie Lazard are associate producers.

Dogfight may be set over half-a-century ago, but it will continue to resonate as long as Marine recruits keep on shipping off to war and coming back with more than physical scars.

Tuneful and tender, dramatic and devastating, laughter-inducing and heartstrings-tugging, Dogfight at the Hudson should make any musical theater lover’s June 2017 must-see list. I’m certainly glad it made mine.

*Austin Farmer (drums), Megan Knapp (cello), Morgan Paros (cello), Steven Rader (keys), Max Wagner (guitar), Zapp (bass)

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The Hudson Mainstage, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
June 2, 2017
Photos: Nicole Priest


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