One of the greatest strengths of the musical theatre genre is its ability to turn difficult, uncomfortable topics into delightful, enjoyable journeys featuring song, dance and, more often than not, the hope of a happy ending. That journey ideally includes characters facing respective challenges, and in turn growing or coming to some sort of profound realization. By definition musical theatre furthermore contains the equal combination of drama and music, with one complementing the other. Through Broadway shows such as Avenue Q, The Rocky Horror Show, Rent, Spring Awakening, Hair and Book of Mormon, audiences over the past few decades have been confronted with a list of touchy issues such as warfare, sexual identity, AIDS, gender equality, organized religion, suicide, racism, drugs, rape and abortion, to mention but a few.
Dogfight follows in this rich tradition, with its investigation of the psychology of warfare, warfare-preparation and chauvinist early-sixties America. It follows a troop of Marines as they are let loose on San Francisco after finishing basic training. It is the eve of their deployment to Vietnam, but also—more specifically—the day before John F. Kennedy’s assassination. (The previous work in ArtsWest’s 2014-2015 season was the Olivier Award-winning The Mountaintop which investigates another ominous evening—that of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.)
On a musical level, ArtsWest’s Dogfight is a true success. The score by collaborative duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul shines in the capable hands of pianist and conductor John Callahan, ranging from turn-of-the-decade pop and rock & roll to the folk music behind the counter-revolutions of the sixties. Woody Guthrie is specifically referenced and the show highlights social change anthems such as “We shall overcome” by name.
The cast expertly navigated the challenges of the score, with its tricky register shifts and demanding timbral changes. The exemplary ensemble work in numbers such as “Some kinda time” and “Hey good lookin’” deserves special mention, and while there appeared to be some audio-feedback issues with one specific singer’s microphone, the harmonies were beautifully rendered, whether belted fully in the more energetic numbers or approached with softer, more vulnerable tones in the more introspective numbers such as “Hometown hero’s ticker tape parade” and “Give way.” The show’s two protagonists, Eddie Birdlace (Kody Bringman) and Rose Fenny (Devon Busswood), are fine singers and impressive in their solo and duo numbers.
Special mention should be made of Janet McWilliams in the role of Marcy, who commanded the stage with her clear belting voice and comedic prowess. Trina Mills’ choreography was simple and effective and fit the musical to a tee. (Mills was recently seen as Sheila in 5th Avenue’s production of A Chorus Line.) Scene designer Ahren Buhmann’s versatile use of the charmingly intimate Artswest theatre served to propel the narrative along with a constant sense of motion and forward progression. Dogfight director Mathew Wright has clearly assembled an exceptionally talented team of actors and musicians.
The narrative follows Marine Eddie Birdlace and his fellow Marines as they engage in the rite-of-passage of the Dogfight. The premise of the Dogfight is by itself problematic for a 21st century audience—an evening of “fun and debauchery” that makes fun of unsuspecting women who are invited along as dates to a party at which they are, unknowingly, judged by their looks in a reverse-beauty contest, where the ugliest date wins her male counterpart the jackpot.
Birdlace meets a sweet, naïve waitress, Rose, at a diner and invites her to the party. He starts to realize the cruelty of his actions and starts falling in love with her over the course of the evening. The young marines throughout the musical are portrayed as confused killing machines, who have been stripped of their humanity and programmed to “do or die” in their boot camp training for the Vietnam War. As a result they objectify the women they encounter and invite to the “dogfight,” with one particularly unsettling scene where one of the marines forces himself on an unwilling sex worker.
Despite its charming musical content, on a dramatic level, Dogfight is the kind of show that leaves you shell-shocked. Dogfight deals with controversial and deep topics, some perhaps too deep for the genre of musical theatre.
The success of female director Nancy Savoca’s original film, on which the musical was based, lay in the sobering harsh portrayal of what boot camp had made of these marines. (Savoca explored similar themes in True Love, which explored the marriage practices of Italian-Americans in the “sexually antagonistic realm of the Bronx.”) Savoca’s film, winner of the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and starring River Phoenix as Birdlace, was lauded for her keen gift as director to portray ordinary moments on deep emotional levels.
Peter Duchan, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were interested to bring this transformation from civilian to objectifying programmed killer into the realm of musical theatre. Dramaturge Danielle French explains: “Extensive and intensive psychological and physical training is required to make the transformation from a civilian to a Marine. The psychological training pushes the soldiers to find a way to extirpate humanity from the enemy. This part of the training and reaction to others was part of what Peter Duchan, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were interested in exploring. It should be noted that the Dogfight was an actual tradition that took place in the Corps. We see this practice as an extended way of conditioning Marines… when they treat their dates as objects rather than people with feelings, it can be viewed as preparation for what comes next.”
The pseudo-psychopathic level of apathy and lack of general character development of the male characters and glimpses of the hopeless state of sexism and gender inequality prevalent in this “Mad Men”/”Pan Am”/“Masters of Sex” era feels awkward in a musical. While the mentioned television shows are all set in the same chauvinist era as Dogfight, they highlight the perspective of the female characters’ experiences—the way they manipulate and wield power behind the scenes, and strive to reach their own goals despite the era’s general oppressive atmosphere. Dogfight simply does not have the same kind of narrative that might seem redeeming to a 21st century audience. While the female protagonist, Rose, does stand up for herself to some extent—optimistically quoting Woody Guthrie and exhibiting hints of a pacifist-feminist-activist in the making—she is still portrayed as weak and following the lead of male protagonist Birdlace.
Birdlace, similarly, while having a change-of-heart about humiliating Rose in the Dogfight, hardly displays a significant amount of growth or empathy throughout the duration of the show. The plot ends ambiguously, leaving one to contemplate warfare, male bonding and gender-equality, but without offering much hope.
Dogfight should be commended for examining these difficult issues, and ArtsWest’s relatively new director Mathew Wright for the brave decision to include it in ArtsWest’s current season. While fascinating, it is simply quite difficult as an audience member to relate and have a sense of investment in the book’s cast of largely non-relatable and unsympathetic characters. As such Dogfight is a fascinating theatre-going experience of stasis at its most unsettling, profound level in the continually redefining and expanding genre of musical theatre.
ArtsWest Presents Dogfight
Wednesday, November 12, 7:30 PM
Thursday, November 13, 7:30 PM
Friday, November 14, 7:30 PM
Saturday, November 15, 7:30 PM
Sunday, November 15, 7:30 PM
Wednesday, November 19, 7:30 PM
Thursday, November 20, 7:30 PM
Friday, November 21, 7:30 PM
Saturday, November 22, 7:30 PM
Where: ArtsWest (4711 California Ave SW)
Tickets available through www.artswest.org