“I don’t look like a chorus girl,” says Lindsay Mendez, and to some extent that’s true. What she looks like, and sounds like, is a star. But although she is one of the most gifted musical-theater performers of her generation, Mendez’s light has so far been hidden under a bushel of supporting parts, emerging only in brief, bright bursts (including some dazzling vocal pyrotechnics). That’s about to change: Her lead role in the new musical Dogfight is her best chance yet to shine in full.
“When I auditioned, I was like, The lead in [director] Joe Mantello’s new musical at Second Stage? That’s a big deal,” recalls Mendez recalls. “I didn’t know if I was fancy enough.” But fancy wasn’t what they were looking for. Dogfight tells the story of three callow Marines in 1963 who, on their last night before shipping off to Vietnam, hold a cruel contest to see who can find the least attractive date. When one of them, Birdlace, courts a wallflower named Rose, played by Mendez, he begins to learn that love can go beyond first sight.
Based on a 1991 movie starring Lili Taylor and River Phoenix, Dogfight is like a bittersweet cross of On the Town and Carrie. (Birdlace is even played by the strapping Derek Klena, last seen as Carrie’s prom date in that musical’s revival.) Although Rose isn’t ugly—and neither is Mendez, whose smile could brighten a coal mine—she’s clumsy and socially awkward; as Mendez delicately puts it, “She takes missteps in how she chooses to present herself."
“They don’t understand each other at all, but she teaches him compassion and he gives her the strength to stand up for herself,” notes Mendez, adding that she can relate to Rose’s gawkiness. “I was this girl growing up, I really was,” she admits. “I have a big persona onstage sometimes, but offstage I’m super shy. Like, I don’t want to perform for people—I’d rather die than sing in a room for someone.”
Shyness notwithstanding, there has rarely been a time in Mendez’s life when she wasn’t performing somewhere. Raised in the L.A. suburb of Norwalk, where her father was mayor for a time, she grew up listening to cast albums and moved straight to New York after graduating from Orange County High School of the Arts. Her first major role was in the 2004 premiere of David Zippel’s Princesses in Connecticut; her Broadway debut came shortly afterward, playing Jan in Kathleen Marshall’s critically maligned 2007 revival of Grease, whose two lead roles had been cast in a televised competition.
“I think it was sunk before it even started because of the reality-show thing,” says Mendez. “People wanted to hate it before it even started.” After a year and a half in Grease, she did a stint Off Broadway in The Marvelous Wonderettes, then served as one of Sherie Rene Scott’s prominent backup singers in Second Stage’s Everyday Rapture, which moved to Broadway in 2010. She returned to the Great White Way a third time in 2011’s Godspell, stealing the show with a glorious rendition of “Bless the Lord.” And meanwhile she has started a side career as a nightclub singer, performing acoustic jazz-rock arrangements of pop songs with pianist and musical director Marco Paguia.
In many of these parts, she has stretched her extraordinary vocal range, but unlike some other young women in musical theater, she never seems to be merely showing off. “I’ve always had a big voice, but I’m very aware of when you need to belt or go all out like that—when it’s necessary and plot driven—as opposed to just screaming to scream, which I hate,” she says.
In Dogfight, which has a book by Peter Duchan and a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, there will be little of that. “I’m not belting my face off in this show,” she says. “I get to be weird and kind of quiet instead of the loud riffy one. It’s the chance of a lifetime for me to prove that I can do a 180, and Joe Mantello is the best guide in the world. He just wants you to go for it, and I’m all about that: falling on my face and trying things that are going to work or are going to be terrible. Our motto in Godspell was ‘Strong and wrong!’ ”
Blending in and out of an ensemble has been a happy communal experience for Mendez. “Whenever I get into a new show, I throw myself into the cast,” she says. “My poor family and friends are like, ‘Bye for two months!’ ” But now she feels ready to shoulder the burden of carrying a show. “I’ve worked with incredible people that have set amazing examples for me,” she says. “So I kind of feel like, You know what? All right! This is your turn, and this role is the right role. Rose is an underdog. I think people like to root for the underdog."
Dogfight is at Second Stage Theatre through Aug 12.