“Why not come to a party with me?” croons “Eddie Birdlace”, the star-crossed Marine at the center of “Dogfight”–an intriguing new musical which this month has its LA and Orange County premiere at “The Chance Theater”, Anaheim California’s official resident theater company; “A five piece band–I’ll take your hand and twirl you around,” he continues, “…don’t stop and think–say yes!” The girl he’s trying to convince is “Rose Fenny” a seemingly plain young waitress not accustomed to male attention whom he approaches the night before he ships out for Vietnam. Little does she know the unkind reason behind why he’s really inviting her; little does he know that this “drab and common girl” will ultimately provide him a life-changing lesson in love, compassion and the importance of not always following the crowd. Based on the 1991 Warner Brothers film of the same name, this winner of the 2013 “Lucille Lortel Award” for “Outstanding Musical” features a book by Peter Duchan, while the music and lyrics are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul—the award-winning team responsible for Broadway’s hit “A Christmas Story” and television’s “Smash”.
This bittersweet retelling expands on the film which starred a young River Phoenix and Lili Taylor along with then-newcomer, Brendan Fraser, introducing us to “Eddie” as he is returning home from Vietnam to San Francisco in 1967—that city’s iconic “Summer Of Love” (–unless you were a soldier or a returning veteran, that is.) More than slightly worse for the wear after his time “in country”, Eddie flashes back to four years earlier and his last night in the old “City by the Bay”—and the US–before shipping out. Immediately the bus transforms into a military troupe transport vehicle as Eddie and his fellow ‘fresh out of boot-camp” recruits make plans for “a wild-ride their last night State-side” with the rousing opening “Some Kinda Time”. As the number progresses, we overhear that their plans include a “Dogfight”—their name for the titular contest wherein they layout the rules, requiring each participant, upon contributing toward the “prize money”, to bring a date, and the one with the ugliest, wins the collective pot. Once inside this “Bash”, Eddie becomes a Grade-A Jerk, and as they dance, each Marine surreptitiously “shows off” his date for judging, where it’s determined a brassy, cynical–and toothless—street-walker named “Marcy” is the ‘winner’. Subsequently however, while in the ladies room, Rose over hears her discussing the ‘true’ nature of the gathering, leaving our gal utterly devastated and humiliated. Nonetheless, after intermission there’s an inherent sweetness to the second half that subtly entrances you–whether it’s from witnessing Eddie and Rose trying to reconcile and make a sincere connection, or watching the other Marines’ valiant display of bravado whilst attempting to bolster their courage to face the impending unknown. Once we’re returned back to 1967 though, an older, far more world-weary Eddie is revealed, once again searching for Rose in a city that not only doesn’t appreciate where he’s been and what he’s undergone, many in it actually despise him for it! Reunited, she cradles him in here arms and whispers “Welcome home” purposely leaving what might happen next for the couple purposely open-ended so that the individual viewer can decide for themselves.
Pasek and Paul’s score gives more than a few nods to master composer Stephen Sondheim’s complex melodies and intricate–but unflinchingly forthright lyrics. Likewise, Duchan’s script (based on the original screenplay by Bob Comfort) is peppered with plenty of spicy gag-lines and humor-filled instances, all of which eloquently disarm the more serious or startling plot elements such as a sudden–and very menacing–battlefield scene that takes you completely by surprise, thus making it all the more haunting and profound. Making his Chance Theater debut with this production, the direction is by Matthew McCray with Musical Direction by Taylor Stephenson, and Choreography by Angeline Mirenda. Here, Director McCray and company have concocted a rich, fast-moving and deeply engrossing production that is fully in keeping with “The Chance’s” elegant custom of offering far more than a simple “Boy meets Girl” ‘song-and-dance’ kind of musical. This is a story that stays with you to ponder and continue to be moved by after the house lights have finally been brought up. “It’s really about the way a person can change,” notes McCray, “and the impact of a single individual on another individual if you’re willing to be open to that person.” Mirenda’s choreography also favors a more subtle, relaxed approach as opposed in interjecting any ‘large’ or intrusive formal dance interludes; instead she provides more casual, every-day kinds of movement whether on the dance floor at the soiree in question or snippets of military drills here and there. This tactic upholds and even adds to realism and intimacy of what’s presented here very nicely. Moreover, all the action is played out against Christopher Scott Murillo’s expansive split-level set which serves as many locales within the story while also suggesting others, like the Golden Gate Bridge, or a besieged Vietnamese jungle. In addition, those providing the musical’s accompaniment are also cleverly kept behind one of these on-set panels, obscured from the audience until it’s time for the notorious titular event, then they’re simply opened up to reveal them as the “band” the marines have employed for the evening.
While among the most appealing assets the production boasts is the uniformly talented ensemble, it relies most heavily on the strength of the two performances of its hero and heroine. Happily, the pair never falter. In fact, their key scenes together are where the production blossoms from good to great, and from great to unforgettable! Andrew Puente returns to “The Chance” as Staff Sergeant “Eddie Birdlace”–the callow-but-cocky Marine; notwithstanding his protestations to the contrary, he’s no (at first anyway) “Eagle Scout,” or “Wally Cleaver” type as he might have Rose believe. On the verge of turning 21 he disarmingly jokes with her, “Soon my age will match my I.Q.”. Puente does a brilliant (and convincing) job with “Come To A Party” as well as his compelling 11 O’Clock ‘soliloquy’ “Come Back”, (“I don’t know how to come back” he despairs after his experiences.) Meanwhile, Ashley Arlene Nelson–herself no stranger to “The Chance Theater” stages–stars opposite him, as “Rose Fenny” the unworldly waitress he encounters. Nelson’s “Rose”, we learn, has secret dreams of being the next “Joan Baez”, shyly picking out fragments of folk rock on her guitar when Eddie first walks into her mother’s diner. Her manically delivered “Nothing Short Of Wonderful” absolutely is ‘nothing short of wonderful’ as she eagerly gets ready for the festivities with all the hyped-up hope, trepidation and excitement of any young lady setting out for an impromptu adventure: “Just a girl, just a guy–but it’s him, and it’s you, and it’s true what you’ve heard…you’re full of a joy…” This is later starkly counter-pointed by her ‘post-party’ solo “Pretty Funny”, which is so on-target and honest that it’s heart-breaking. Indeed, so clearly and acutely does Ms. Nelson nail the numerous complex emotions Rose is undergoing, that in that moment we all become ‘Rose Fenny’ regardless of age or gender! It also serves as a stunning lead-in to intermission such as few musicals possess. “All disasters have an upside” she sings desperately trying to salvage some shred of dignity; “You can find one if you tried…you went dancing, you were dancing–you were dancing with a guy!” After the act break, when Eddie returns to bumble his way through an apology, although still wounded to the core (“You think you know everything but you don’t” she initially seethes) but still attempting to twist “lemons into lemonade”, she agrees to give him one more chance and accompany him out to a late night dinner. This leads to a lovely duet for the two, “First Date/Last Night”: “You’d be sleeping/You’d be drunk if you had stayed” they each sing to themselves before reaching out with “–and you might miss any good that could come after this first date…”
“Chance” Resident Artist James McHale also bestows a commendable portrayal as Eddie’s platoon-mate and close friend “Boland”. In McHales’s practiced conservatorship, ‘Boland’—a character that could too easily be phoned-in as just another red-neck stereotype, instead is infused with a great humanity and refreshing realism. This guy is a very genuine (if admittedly flawed) human being, raised to be part of a certain time-honored tradition, who in the end, really does care about his pals. “That’s the thing about shit” he tells Eddie at one point; “You hit me with a little, I buy it. I hit you with a little, you buy it. It doesn’t make us assholes–that’s what makes us buddies.” Kim Dalton also scores comic gold as “Marcy”— Boland’s “date” and co-conspirator to win the cash. Her ‘Marcy’ may be a diminutive, bleach-blonde, “Betty Boop” on acid—but oh, what a voice has she! While getting her share of some of the script’s sharpest (and wittiest) lines, it’s Marcy who ultimately fills Rose in on the rules of the “Dogfight”, and in the process supplies an electrifying rendition of the title number in all its raw and biting frankness: “You can’t give in and you can’t play dumb! When you get thick skin, then you’re quick to numb! If you let them win, a dog’s what you become…at the dogfight!” She virulently decries. Jonathan Rosario is similarly a standout as “Bernstein”—the youngest—and most innocently enthusiastic member of the group; together with Puente and McHale, they comprise a trio of pals who, given the shared first letter of their last names, call themselves “The Three Bees”, and even get matching Bumblebee tattoos to cement that connection. Musically they provide some impressive triple-part harmony with “Hey Good Lookin’”, and their own personal anthem “We Three Bees”.
Along with the rest of their platoon, they triumph with the rousing opening “Some Kinda Time”: “A band of brothers you’ve been given–pride you never thought you’d feel…’cause when it gets rough, your buddies will pull you right through,” they all exhort, further proclaiming “You get that and more when you join the Corps!” Conversely, in Act Two, their “Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade” imparts one of the score’s more stinging examples of historical–and truly affecting—“if they only knew” irony, as the boys collectively dream of the huge welcome and undying admiration they’ll receive once their ‘simple’ mission is accomplished. Robin Walton also delivers terrific support in several roles including the passenger on the bus—a former veteran himself of WWII, whom Eddie shares his story with, as well as a nominally talented ‘Lounge Singer’ hired for this shameful shindig who, during his ‘spot-light’ canzonet, “That Face” makes the final decision as to which girl earns the dubious accolade. Cassandra Rieck too, makes the most of her time on stage as Rose’s Mother and owner of the diner where Eddie and her daughter first meet. If the production faces any challenge though, it’s that while perhaps the girls whom the boys bring may not be on a par with the likes of 60’s era prime-time beauties “Tuesday Weld”, “Deborah Walley” or “Shelley Fabares”, they definitely aren’t unattractive–let alone ‘ugly’ (–unless of course, they’re being held to some Quixotic teenage standard of the time as dictated by “Tiger Beat” or “Fave”.)
A first-class musical drama with comic moments, this is positively NOT your ordinary run-of-the-mill romance (–in many unexpected and extraordinary ways, it’s even better!) After previewing from February 5 through February 12, 2016, “Dogfight” officially opened on Saturday, February 13th where it is slated to run through Sunday, March 6th, 2016 on the Chance Theater’s “Cripe Stage” at “The Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center”, located at 5522 E. La Palma Avenue in Anaheim, CA. Show-times are Fridays and Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm with Sunday matinees at 3:00 pm, with a special added performance on Wednesday, February 17th at 7:30 pm. Tickets may be obtained by calling (714) 777-3033 or on-line by logging onto www.ChanceTheater.com.
Production Photos By Doug Catiller At “True Image Studio” (http://www.trueimagestudio.com) Courtesy Of “The Chance Theater”; Special Thanks To Casey Long, Matthew McCray, Angeline Mirenda, Taylor Stephenson And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Chance Theater’s” “Dogfight” In Anaheim California For Making This Story Possible.