Is she gorgeous? Well, she’s got nice hair. And her eyes are pretty. She has a great personality. Such stock evasions come to mind when describing the earnest, well-wrought Dogfight, a musical with no shortage of fine attributes: tenderly moving score, spot-on performances and a heart of gold. But, in toto, Dogfight is the sort of musical that inspires fond admiration rather than panting desire—although I suspect that others will be smitten by its low-key, complex charms.
Like Once, another indie film retooled as a heart-on-sleeve show, Dogfight seems attenuated past 90 minutes. Based on Nancy Savoca’s 1991 movie, the story follows a group of Marines, en route to Vietnam in 1963, on shore leave in San Francisco. Carrying on the bonding tradition of a “dogfight,” the jarheads compete to see who can bring the ugliest girl to a party for a cash prize. Grudgingly, sensitive grunt Eddie (Klena) winds up with Rose (Mendez), a waitress whose decency, honesty and artistic aspirations soften the callous soldier. Over the course of a night, inner and outer beauty meld into one.
Book writer Peter Duchan has penned sharp, unsentimental scenes around Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s wistful and witty score, which makes the requisite rock and folk bows to the period, but retains its own nervous, gentle character. Choreographer Christopher Gattelli keeps his Marines bouncing through testosterone-heavy moves, and the production glows in Joe Mantello’s nuanced, energized staging. Still, the intermission saps the emotional arc of momentum, and the melodramatic final stretch, while faithful to the source, plays like a bid for unearned sociopolitical resonance.
For all that, the score is easily the most delicate, surprising and musically satisfying since Spring Awakening or The Shaggs, and for that reason, followers of new work should pay a visit. I won’t say she’s a flawless beauty, but you gotta hear her sing.—David Cote
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