There’s nothing wrong with a musical having a distasteful premise. God knows, it seems many musicals in recent years have had at least one stomach-churning aspect (looking at you Violet, now at Lakeland Civic Theatre, whose main character is facially disfigured by an axe).
The ugliness in Dogfight almost as literal, since it involves a bunch of Marines who, on the night before they are shipping out to the Vietnam War, make a bet. They compete to see who among them can bring the ugliest girl “date” to a bar, where the winning guy will be awarded a cash prize.
Yes, it’s a nasty set-up, but once the shock of it subsides, you settle in for a confrontational Neil LaBute sort of musical. Unfortunately, the book by Peter Duchan doesn’t have the courage of it’s own initially misogynistic convictions. And the songs by Benj Pasek and Austin Paul are unfailingly pleasant, but several of them begin to sound undifferentiated and bland.
This is the latest collaboration between Beck Center and the esteemed Baldwin Wallace University Music Theatre Program. They have put together some extraordinary productions in the past, but this one suffers from flawed material and other issues.
Directed by Victoria Bussert and based on an indie film of the same name, Dogfight bristles with foot-stomping testosterone after a mellow opening,. A Marine named Eddie Birdlace, just back from Vietnam in 1967, is on his way to San Francisco. He has a tattoo of three bees on his arm, symbolic of his friendship with fellow Marines named Boland (an intense Zach Adkins) and Bernstein (Micky Ryan).
Then, we flash back four years earlier as Eddie and some other “jarheads” prepare to get their macho freak on in ‘Frisco. Thanks to energetic, kick-ass choreography by Gregory Daniels, the rowdy song “Some Kinda Time” launches the show with muscularity and purpose.
But in a matter of minutes, another song titled “Hey, Good Lookin’” mirrors the same energy level and content of “Some Kinda Time.” This repetition and predictability is rife throughout Pasek and Paul’s material.
Eddie tracks down his “dog” for the evening, a girl named Rose who is a waitress in a restaurant he visits. But it’s clear that Eddie and Rose will not continue to be prankster and stooge. And sure enough, sometime during their first date, on the way to the bar, Eddie falls for Rose.
Trouble is, we never sense that transition in Eddie’s thoughts since Colton Ryan, as Eddie, permits precious few nuances to emerge through his determined Marine scowl. This undercuts the chemistry development between him and Rose, and their fraught love affair never takes on the weight of a real romance.
As Rose, Keri Rene Fuller breathes life into her role of the shy, supposedly homely girl who loves folk music and noodles out songs on her guitar. Fuller brings a lovely vulnerability to the role and she does what she can to make the central love match work. She sings beautifully throughout the show and lends some otherwise forgettable tunes a bit of heft.
As for climactic scene in Act One, when the girls are to be judged on their relative homeliness by the soldiers, it all gets lost in a roundelay of dancing. Without showing us the brutal nature of the boys’ vile game, which is hinted at in Laura Carlson Tarantowski’s moody urban scenic design, the contrast of Eddie and Rose’s budding fondness is frittered away.
The contest is apparently won by Marcy, a hooker who has been contracted by Boland to dress up homely by faking some missing teeth. As Marcy, Victoria Pippo is a convincing hard case and she performs the duet “It’s A Dogfight” with Rose. But Pippo pushes a bit too much sending her voice into a borderline piercing zone.
Some of the female ensemble players craft interesting cameos as the ugly girls. Adrian Grace Bumpas as Ruth Two Bears, is a stiff native American lass who looks like she had a whole-body botox treatment. And Laura Perrotta’s go-for-broke biker chick is a hoot.
The second act is devoted to seeing how Eddie and Rose develop into lovers. The hesitant moment when they first share a bed in Rose’s bedroom is one time where their relationship actually feels genuine. But it seems like too little, too late.
After that, four years of war are represented by a strobe and smoke battle scene before Eddie finds himself back in ‘Frisco, a sadder and perhaps wiser young man.
On opening night, the young cast of predominantly BW students was pumped with adrenaline. That over-zealous energy will probably settle down a bit during the run, and that will only help this production find its optimal pacing.
Through March 15 at the Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.