Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (Music & Lyrics); Peter Duchan (Book)
|The Marines of "Dogfight"|
Take an ugly contest and an uglier war; add a soldier, a waitress, music, and a moon over the Golden Gate; and the result is a moving, compelling, sometimes disturbing, and often funny love story at San Francisco Playhouse. With music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul and book by Peter Duchan, Dogfight is the Vietnam War’s darker cousin to WWII’s joyous On the Town. While the sailors in the latter search the streets of 1944 New York for beautiful dames for one last fling before heading off to save the free world, the young Marines in Dogfight troll the alleys and cafes of 1963 San Francisco to find the ugliest girl possible as a date in their last night before heading to Vietnam jungles for what they feebly hope will be a few months of testosterone adventures. Each seeks to win a pot of contest cash contributed by fellow buddies who are rip-roaringly following a proud (and pathetic by our standards today) tradition of Marines on their last night before shipping off to war.
Birdlace, Boland, and Bernstein venture out with other pals on their dubious hunt in high mood singing a rambunctious “Some Kinda Time,” for “one last night, no regrets,” knowing “the whole damn world might change tomorrow,” but believing “we are kings for the evening.” With their names being what they are, “We Three Bees” sing of their special bond, delightfully ‘buzzing’ in harmonies and proving in their silliness that these are in fact barely boys-becoming-men who are about to head to war. Women of all shapes, ages, sizes, and colors (and in bright-colored dresses of 1960s polka-dots) become their targets as they trade with their preys barbs, pleas, and catcalls in “Hey, Good Lookin’.”
One of our three, Eddie Birdlace, finds himself in a diner eyeing a somewhat plump and plain, pony-tailed blonde in her green waitress outfit, complete with a rose brocaded rather largely above her heart. As Jeffrey Brian Adams employs his crystal clear, tenor voice to persuade Rose to “Come to a Party,” Caitlin Brooke resists shyly but with increasing interest, singing with a voice that will only get stronger and more beautiful as the story and the relationship progresses. While we know this is all a ploy for profit on Eddie’s part, his locked, puppy eyes on her curious gaze is a sure clue that the program subtitle of Dogfight (“A Love Story”) is going to lead to something more than just a game between these two.
|Jeffrey Brian Adams & Caitlin Brooke as Eddie & Rose|
In fact, thus begins a dance of sorts between Rose and Eddie that will alternate between a slow cake walk, a funny cha-cha, an angry tango, and a slow and intense waltz. What makes these two actors so special is that each underplays with purpose their Rose and Eddie, magically evolving both themselves as individuals as well as them as a couple without giving away too much, too soon. Subtle smiles turned into frowns back into smiles, diverted eyes that meet and then look away, wrinkled brows of self-doubt and raised brows of surprised delight gently tell of their ups-and-downs together. For them, attraction sneaks up and surprises only after betrayal demeans and almost destroys. The wavering each struggles between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ is clearly noted in their hesitant walk along moon- and neon-lit streets to “First Date, Last Night,” where inner thoughts of “don’t know why I decided to come” are balanced by playful harmonies of “and we go bum, bum, bum” as they begin to ease into more Romeo and Juliet than either had imagined only a couple hours before. Bravo to two stellar performances by Ms. Brooke and Mr. Adams.
Surrounding Eddie and Rose is a highly capable cast of characters of every 1960s description. The other two Bees -- the brash and braggart Boland (Brandon Dahlquist) and the shy, seeking-first-time-sex Bernstein (Andrew Humann) – bring hearty singing voices, Marine-like machismo, and heart-breaking naivite about what lies ahead. Amy Lizardo is the street-smart, take-no-prisoners Marcy who knows how to ensure first place and her share of the winnings and how to join Rose for one of the evening’s highlights in a knock-the-socks-off, diva duo, “Dogfight.” Each time Michael Gene Sullivan arrives on stage, he steals a minute of deserved audience attention as a barking sergeant, a nose-upturned waiter, a crooning nightclub singer (ably delivering “Blast Off!” and “It’s Just a Party”), as well as other quirky and varied roles. Sally Dana, Nikita Burshteyn, Kathryn Fox Hart, Aejay Mitchell, and Andy Rotchadl (stepping in without a hitch and with much aplomb as an understudy for the absent Jordon Lee Bridges) each takes on a number of parts with appropriate gusto and grit along with proven ability to blend in strong vocals as an ensemble.
Bill English’s set of a slanted, central Golden Gate Bridge bunting into an upper walkway and jutting over a rotating disc of simple but effective interiors is only matched in effectiveness by his well-timed, well-placed direction of multiple, ever-changing scenes. Projections and lighting designed by David Lee Cuthbert reminisce scenes of the colorful 60s in San Francisco, the horrors of the war in Vietnam, and the romance of moonlight over the Bay. Special kudos must go to Tatjana Genser and Tabbitha McBride for fabulous and fun costumes and wigs that span the five years of the play’s story, going from petticoats and bouffants to tie-dyes and straggly hair to the waist. Finally, the elevated and scrim-hidden band of seven is musically directed with astute expertise by Ben Prince.
In 2015, Dogfight at times is difficult and uncomfortable to watch with its demeaning treatment of women as objects of derision and sexual exploiting. We also cringe knowing that these young men are heading off to what we now know will be a useless bloodbath for them and for so many millions in Southeast Asia. Yet, with music that snaps and sometimes soars and with a story of unlikely but totally believable love emerging from all the ugliness surrounding it, Dogfight at San Francisco Playhouse is in the end a super evening of entertainment not to be missed.
Rating: 5 E’s
Dogfight continues at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street through November 7, 2015. Tickets are available online at http://sfplayhouse.org/sfph/get-tickets/ or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.
Photo by Jessica Palopoli