Michael L. Quintos
America has had a long tragic history of sending brave young people off to foreign lands to fight in life-endangering wars, only to see those who have survived come home forever changed.
Much like a haunting ghost, this idea lingers over the new engaging musical DOGFIGHT, now having its Los Angeles/Orange County-area premiere at the Chance Theater in Anaheim through March 6. Adapted for the stage from the 1991 Warner Bros. film of the same name and featuring music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (A Christmas Story, Dear Evan Hansen) and a book by Peter Duchan, this 2013 Lucille Lortel Award-winning off-Broadway musical shows how even the most confident, self-assured people can still be severely affected not only physically but also emotionally by the harsh realities of explosive, in-the-trenches combat.
Such is the case with marine Eddie Birdlace (Andrew Puente), who's just come home from a tour of duty in Vietnam. We first meet him while riding on a bus headed for San Francisco, deeply reminiscing about his past as he stares out into the vastness of an uncertain future, post-combat. Blank, quiet, and uneasy, it is very clear that he's feeling troubled. He soon shyly engages in a conversation with a chatty passenger, triggering memories of the very day when things were a lot less melancholy—before his innocence was, well, wiped away by the war.
Flashback to November 21, 1963 (coincidentally, the day before the assassination of President John Kennedy) where we spot a happier, even younger Birdlace (just days from his 21st birthday) laughing and partying it up on a military bus with some fellow marines, which include two of his best buddies: pompous Boland (James McHale) and nerdy Bernstein (Jonathan Rosario). Together, the three, loyal close pals call themselves the "Three B's"—a label that will be immortalized later with, what else, tattoos.
They and the rest of the testosterone-spewing, "Semper Fi, Do Or Die"-chanting bus riders have just completed basic training and are now—rather enthusiastically—on their way to the port city of San Francisco, where they will be shipped off for combat the following day. The atmosphere inside the transport is exceedingly jovial, as the marines exude excitement over their final night of lewd debauchery and childish mayhem here in the U.S. before they depart for hero duty in a "little-known" country in Southeast Asia called Vietnam.
"The whole damn world might change tomorrow... so we go for broke today," they sing in rowdy, infectiously celebratory chorus.
Not fully aware of what's in store for them in that foreign land, the rather immature boys are, for now, in festive, ignorant bliss in a war-free zone. To that end, they list off some of the awesome only-in-America things they'll soon be saying goodbye to ("farewell to waffle cones... new Twilight Zone... and Leslie Gore") with great joy, while similarly excited for the evening's true main event: the ubiquitous Dogfight.
As they explain it, for an ante of $50, each guy is tasked with bringing an unattractive date to the so-called Dogfight, which culminates at a party in a local sleazy club. Once assembled, the club's proprietor himself will judge which of the females is the "ugliest" of the lot. Whomever brings the "ugliest" girl to the party will win the pot of money.
So with their douche-y goals set and civilian threads on, the boys set off for the streets of San Francisco, each in search of dates that will help them win the much-coveted prize. A montage (set to the spirited "Hey, Good Lookin") ensues depicting the boys finding one unattractive, strange girl after another, with Birdlace coming up short time after time.
Feeling defeated, he eventually ends up at a random diner where he meets a mousy waitress named Rose (Ashley Arlene Nelson), an awkwardly shy plain-jane with a penchant for folksy-plucking on an acoustic guitar (with a pleasant voice, nonetheless). After some vigorous flirtation, she is soon invited to Birdlace's party, blissfully unaware of this charming stranger's ulterior motive. Rose hesitates at first, but she eventually agrees to go—beaming with excitement that a boy—this boy—actually likes her and that she's going to a party! What a lovely turn of events for someone who has always seen herself as "the kind of girl you ask out as a joke."
Elsewhere in the city, Boland, too, has secured himself a date to the Dogfight. One problem: Boland is cheating! He has hired Marcy (Kim Dalton), a snarky, gap-toothed prostitute to be his "date" to the Dogfight. She agrees to be Boland's fake-date on the condition that she gets a huge cut of his winnings from the contest if he wins (which she'll do everything she can to secure).
As expected in such narratives, the normally cocky Birdlace begins to develop a conscience—and, maybe, even romantic feelings—towards Rose, the more he gets to know her and spends time with her. In the hopes of shielding her from the real purpose of the party, Birdlace tries to convince Rose that they skip it altogether—but she, in turn, thinks that this move suggests that he is, perhaps, ashamed of her and doesn't want his friends to meet her. Rather than have her continue thinking this was the case, Birdlace escorts her inside the party anyway, trying his best to not let her discover his "original" intent.
But, of course, such, um... ugly truths have a way of coming to the surface somehow, setting up a remaining story marked with heartache, betrayal, reconciliation, redemption, and, yes, tragedy. While the first act was meant to show the mixed consequences of innocence, the second act thematically shifts to reflect the mixed consequences of maturity.
An exciting, fresh new musical with many enjoyable songs and a mostly-absorbing storyline, DOGFIGHT is a perfect small-ensemble musical to end up at Chance Theater, who has over the years shown a real panache for taking smaller, newer musicals (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Lysistrata Jones, Triassic Parq) and presenting them to a new, appreciative audience here in the West Coast. Chance Theater's latest, directed by Matthew McCray, suitably captures the joy and elation of youthful frivolity and youthful attraction, but also the sad, heartbreaking realities of youth squelched by the unforgivable violence of war—all in the small compact footprint of the Cripe Stage.
Christopher Scott Murillo's inventively metamorphic 60's inspired set—enhanced by superb, big theater-caliber lighting by KC Wilkerson—reveals a clever, intricate puzzle of hidden compartments and expanding crevices that create distinct spaces and environments from a restaurant, a diner, a club, a brothel, to even Rose's bedroom, among others.
One of those giant corner compartments happens to also shelter the production's admirable house band, led by musical director Taylor Stephenson (the band's "reveal" during the story's transfer to the Nite Lite club is a nice, unexpected wow moment). Stephenson and the band power through Pasek and Paul's energetic, modern-sounding score quite well, even with a few upper-register pitch problems here and there—quite understandable considering the strength and confidence these challenging, belty, upper-range songs require. Still, to hear such power-vocal songs written for male voices and to have them featured in a musical is a treat.
And as a period 60's piece, costume designer Christina Marie Perez adorns the cast with appropriate military garb and mod-era dresses that reflect the early 60's well. Even Rose's diner uniform is straight out of a vintage Johnny Rockets.
Casting-wise, Chance Theater's DOGFIGHT has certainly excelled in finding its Rose, which turns out to be the heart and soul of the musical despite its heavy emphasis on testosterone energy. Cast as the girl Birdlace is supposed to find "homely" enough to compete in the Dogfight yet enchanting enough to change his mind later, Nelson's Rose is the production's true shining light, conveying equal parts confidence and vulnerability with balanced nuance. Her character is also revealed as a fan of folk music by the likes of Joan Baez and Woody Guthrie—exactly the kind of music being championed by the rising anti-war counter-culture rising out of the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco—and vocal-wise, Nelson radiates a lovely singing quality that reflects her character's leanings.
As the self-assured Marcy, the prostitute who schools Rose in the dirty deeds of men, Dalton shares a strong duet and moment with Rose—a nice injection of female empowerment in the sea of bro-high-fives and male cat calls. Actor Robin Walton, the production's sole "older" cast member who plays several roles including the club owner/singer and the passenger that converses with post-war Birdlace, is also worth noting for his outstanding contributions to several scenes.
Collectively, I enjoy each and every time the "boys" come together to sing their characters' praises with unabashed confidence and swagger. Aside from Puente, McHale, and Rosario, the "Three B's" are also often joined in glorious vocal harmony by John Wells III (Fector), David Sasik (Stevens), and Joseph Ott (Gibbs). In rousing songs like "Some Kinda Time," "Hey Good Lookin," and "Hometown Hero's Ticker Tape Parade"—arguably three of the show's most entertaining, explosively fun numbers that had the audience cheering—the boys continue to remind us in song that their joy is loaded with context.
As reprehensible and cruel as this whole "dogfight" business is, it is just a mere reflection of these young men's last vestiges of boys-being-boys behavior, a way to stretch out the few hours of rowdy, rule-breaking fun they have remaining before they cease to be boys. Though they know little of the dangers that lie ahead for them (they are so shockingly unaware that they don't even know the exact location of Vietnam on a map), what they DO know is that their lives will be much more disciplined, restrictive, and ordered once they are deployed.
You certainly feel these characters's unbridled happiness so much more in the first act, as they engage in heavy drinking and heavy female pursuing. Appropriately, Angeline Mirenda's choreography and movements help convey these bursts of joy as well.
Yes, their game of "Dogfight" is, without question, a pretty shitty thing to do, but for them, it's "harmless" fun amongst their band of brothers. It certainly speaks volumes of their immaturity: they're probably thinking... what these girls don't know... won't hurt them... (Well, try explaining that to Rose).
But as abhorrent as these characters' initiation of a "Dogfight" is, one of the things in this musical that actually surprised me and made me cringe uncomfortably is its portrayal of one of the female "contestants" in this cruel, sadistic contest: a young Native American woman character played for easy, cheap laughs. The character, written to be overplayed with exaggerated, culturally-appropriated "native dancing," is meant to be laughed at not only by the mean characters she interacts with but by us, the audience, as well. I found it unflattering and quite mean-spirited that the character's ethnicity and supposed cultural rituals were the dominant traits that made her a worthy candidate in the "dogfight" (a slightly less emphasized cross-dressing character in the search montage fares better with only a few seconds for laughter).
Yet, despite this momentary jarring moment, DOGFIGHT, overall, is still an impressive little musical with big important things to say. Which reminds me... to all our men and women in the military, we thank you so much for your bravery and service.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.
Photos from Chance Theater's production of DOGFIGHT by Doug Catiller/True Image Studio.
Chance Theater's Production of DOGFIGHT continues at the Cripe Stage through March 6, 2015. The Chance Theater is located in the Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center at 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, CA 92807.
For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.ChanceTheater.com.