San Diego, CA— It’s light, it’s dark. It’s a musical and it’s a drama. It’s profound and it’s raw. It’s dreamy and it’s realistic. It’s heart breaking and it’s cathartic, and rolled into one excellent theatrical experience it’s called “Dogfight’, the pop musical by Benj Pasik and Justin Paul (Book) and Peter Duchan (book). It is being mounted on Cygnet’s stage in Old Town through Aug. 23rd. If it isn’t extended, it should be.
Cygnet Theatre, in its thirteenth year, is on the map for staging new and edgy works. With Sean Murray, artistic director extraordinaire at the helm and armed with an outstanding cast “Dogfight”, based on the Warner Bros. film and screenplay by Bob Comfort, making its San Diego Premiere is just another reason to reinforce his bona fides.
To some the term Dogfight means an aerial battle between fighter aircraft conducted at close range. It was coined during WW I and that’s what I had always known the term ‘dogfight’ to be. I have also known that in some circles, gals who are not the prettiest or have the best figure were referred to as dogs…or as Boland so aptly puts it: “To find us some droolin’ and slobberin’ dogs, sir!”
In Eddie Birdlace’s life, dogfight is a rather nasty game played by Eddie and his fellow Marine buddies, (The “3 Bees”, Birdlace, Bernstein and Boland, “We Three Bees”…have a mighty sting) just for fun and money (they all put $50.00 in the pot) to see who can snag the ugliest girl in town, take her ‘on a date to a dance’ where unbeknownst to the girl, each couple is judged and the guy with the ugliest looking dog wins the game. (“That Face”)
The sleazy Lounge Singer (Bryan Charles Feldman), whom they pay to do the judging, holds up numbers and in the end the highest number wins the pot. They all agree to stick it out at the dance ‘till the ‘fat lady barks’. That information alone was enough of a turnoff for me to want to remove my hearing aids, but not so fast!
This atypical musical is set as a memory play that begins in 1967 but segues back to 1963 when all this mess began. President Kennedy committed to send ‘military advisors’ to Vietnam, a country so many naïve young twenty something GI’s never heard before. In the play the Marines we meet up with refer to it as a ‘little country near India’.
It is The Three Bees last night before shipping out to Okinawa (“Some Kinda Time”) and a war they feel combat ready, after five months of training, to fight and save the country from Communism (something the French were unable to do for decades.) But for now they have invaded San Francisco and are looking to stir up some excitement.
It is here that Eddie Birdlace (Patrick Osteen) wanders into a family owned diner at just about closing time and catches the eye of the young waitress off in a corner strumming her guitar. Her no nonsense mother (Debra Wanger) urges him to leave and her to get busy with her chores for the next day.
Rose Fenny (Caitie Grady) is as shy as Eddie is outgoing. She’s as unsure of herself as he is confident, as awkward as he is sure footed and as naïve as he thinks he is worldly. This is almost a ‘clash of the titans’. She is influenced by the Martin Luther King “I Have Dream” speech and is into the “We Shall Overcome” mentality and he thinks he knows about music, but has a long way to go.
With a whole lot of coaxing and B.S ing. on Eddie’s part, he convinces her to go to the ‘dance with him’. (I’ll take your hand Rose and twirl you around…”) But when Eddie gets to the planned destination, he has second thoughts. He might have made a mistake in his choice yet when meets up with his buds that are ready, willing and able to show off their ‘dogs’ there is no turning back.
Boland (Alex Hoeffler is excellent as the bawdy leader of the 3 B’s) manages to talk experienced and street smart hooker Marcy (Sarah Errington) to play the game after he agrees to share the jackpot with her. Scott Nickley’s Bernstein drags Ruth Two Bears (Mel Domingo plays several roles), who barely understands what’s going on, but he plays along.
Things go from bad to worse when Marcy pulls out her teeth and becomes a mangy toothless mess in order to look her utmost awful. Errington is a hoot as the hooker adding some much needed lightness to the situation that is growing nastier by the minute, especially when Rosy comes into the hall in the most horrific looking Maroon dress (Jacinda Johnson-Fischer) that makes her look chunky and more unattractive that ever. Oblivious, the inexperienced, soft spoken and good-natured Rose is in heaven and can’t get over the fact that she is out on her first date.
The activities begin and Eddie is reluctant to participate. Rose is baffled by the whole thing, drinks too much and winds up in the Ladies Room with Marcy who proceeds to let her in on the gag. “It’s a dogfight”. She’s furious (“You are a cruel, heartless, ignorant jerk”) and is all but ready to have Eddie become the first casualty of their group but instead tells him that she hopes he dies.
At home and in bed she sings a heart wrenching “Pretty Funny” that just about unglued yours truly as she recapped the evening. There’s nothing funny about what just happened to her but in a convoluted and self -depreciating mood, she sings “Isn’t it funny? Isn’t it funny? For a moment he convinced me I could be pretty funny.”
The musical love story “Dogfight” is just that. It’s musical love story at odds with itself featuring a group of young men with raging hormones about to go off to an unspecified war on a quest to make the most of their last night of freedom, no holds barred. They are looking for love in all the wrong places for all the wrong reasons and yet a tender love story emerges from the ashes of disaster.
As raw as it is, and it is raw (the F Bomb is thrown about as easily as one might say hello) both Eddie’s and Rose’s orbits begin to close in on one another. Uncanny as it might sound for these opposite, have nothing in common everyday strangers to gain, seeing them change right before our eyes is nothing less than beautiful.
The chemistry that grows before us becomes more intense as each character matures in his or her own way, both realizing their potential, yet too timid to take the first step (“First Date/ Last Night”) makes the premise almost forgettable.
Grady and Osteen are a perfect match and they seal the deal with conviction, she with her naivety and charm and he with his growing vulnerability while his machismo fades and something like feelings seep in.
As for the rest of the excellent cast, everyone is at the top of their game. This not your standard musical soaring with music and lyrics you will remember. NO. You will not remember nor will you be able to hum ant y of the tunes. It does however reflect the sentiments, the moods and thoughts of these young wired Marines… to a Marine. The ensemble is brilliant.
Musical director Terry O’Donnell and his six- musician band is on Keyboards, David Brennan’s boot stomping, articulate choreography, Chris Rynne’s lighting design (I especially loved the patterns on Sean Fanning’s two tiered stage) all contribute to Murray’s first-rate show. The production is pretty much flawless.
The Vietnam War took over 47,000 of our finest. 11,00 non- combat deaths, over 150,000 were wounded and 10,000 went missing. From 1963 until 1975 when South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnam our family watched constant footage played out on the nightly news ad infinitum.
None of the young Marines in “Dogfight” ever gave thought about what the actual fighting would look like. Count on Murray and crew to tell it like it was. (“War Sequence”) To quote Rose: “When you shoot at people… you get people shooting back”.
Don’t take my word for it see it for yourself.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Aug. 23rd
Organization: Cygnet Theatre
Production Type: Musical
Where: 4040 Twiggs St., San Diego, CA 92110
Ticket Prices: Start at $39.00
Venue: Theatre In Old Town