Pasek and Paul's score impresses in a story that feels ultimately unbalanced.
When I first met the young composing team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul four years ago, they were hitting town with their new musicalization of A Christmas Story, and their forthcoming adaptation of the 1991 film Dogfight was on everyone's tongues. Since then, Dogfight had a buzzy debut at Lincoln Center Theater, the pair earned their first Tony nomination for A Christmas Story and their latest work, Dear Evan Hansen, scored rave reviews in Washington, D.C., ahead of a spring transfer to Off Broadway's Second Stage Theater.
So Dogfight's current Chicago premiere via BoHo Theatre feels overdue. Finally on full view here, the piece amply demonstrates why it generated so much energy around the songwriters. But it also suggests why it took so long to get here, and why it failed to drum up interest from a larger institution.
Drawing from a rather small story about American G.I.'s about to set out for Vietnam engaged in a last-night-in-town competition to round up the ugliest girl, BoHo's production extracts as much pathos as it can from the original story's long night, in which Birdlace (Garrett Lutz) eventually realizes he actually likes Rose (Emily Goldberg).
Pasek and Paul do an admirable job of making both lead characters feel fully human, even as most of those around them are more like lightly sketched caricatures. But at the show's culmination, book writer Peter Duchan abandons Rose as he makes the show a statement about the Vietnam War—one that ultimately shuts Rose out of agency. The final moments, which define the formerly central character solely in relation to the returning soldier, negate too much of what's come before.
BoHo Theatre at Theater Wit. Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Book by Duchan. Directed by Peter Marston Sullivan. With Garrett Lutz, Emily Goldberg, Matt Frye, Nick Graffagna. Running time: 2hrs 20mins; one intermission.