There are good reasons to see Cygnet Theatre’s Dogfight, and reasons to wonder why much of the musical feels ungrounded and artificial.
Three marines, last night stateside, November 21, 1963. Tomorrow they’re off, first to Okinawa, then to a “little country near India” called Vietnam, where they’ll be “advisors” in a “police action.” Before painting San Francisco red, they enact an age-old Marine tradition: a “dogfight.” Each brings the “ugliest woman” he can find to a party. The winner — i.e., the biggest “dog” — wins a pile of loot from a common pool.
Eddie Birdlace, Alpha predator, talks withdrawn Rose Fenny into going. As described, she looks like SF’s answer to Tracy Turnblad of Hairspray: beehive hair, a mite zaftig, an inverted pyramid of petticoats. And like Tracy, Rose is ahead of her time. She even listens to Bob Dylan (but contrary to what the musical suggests, few did in the fall of ’63). What follows is The Taming of the Shrew in reverse. Modest Rose asserts herself and blooms. Sexist pig Eddie, back from ’Nam disillusioned and disrespected, learns to see eye-to-eye.
A puzzle: if the date is November 21, 1963, why doesn’t Cygnet do anything about it? It’s the eve of the Kennedy assassination. A single remark says, “The whole damn world might change tomorrow.” But other than that, the date’s unused, it’s significance unimportant to those who don’t recognize it.
This isn’t just Rose and Eddie’s last night of innocence. It’s America’s. They shoot JFK tomorrow at 12:30 p.m., Dallas time. The 21st functions the way World War I looms over Shaw’s unsuspecting aristocrats in Heartbreak House, and Vesuvius about to erupt in The Last Days of Pompeii. Without the “eve of destruction” subtext, much of Dogfight plays long and thin. Until the middle of Act two, the characters are mostly generic, the scenes predictable (Do opposites attract? Will he see her truly?). And the writing has an odd double duty: an intimate chamber musical with an occasional cinematic sweep (Duchan adapted the script from the 1991 Warner Brothers movie with River Phoenix and Lili Taylor).
The music doesn’t match the period. There are no American Bandstand standards or Gary “U.S.” Bonds’ people “dancin’ like they were mad.” Instead it’s a flexible, Sondheim-inflected score that rises to the occasion when the occasion arises in Act two, when personalities break through stock types. In effect, the second act redeems the slender first.
Best of show: when Eddie and Rose go out for real, the tables turn with “First Date, Last Date.” The composers enhance one of the movie’s best scenes with a melodic duet at once romantic and awkward. Though at times his voice came in flat on opening night, Patrick Osteen makes Eddie’s sweeping arc from hair-trigger machismo to kind and gentle quite credibly.
Catie Grady, a staple at Lamb’s Players, has a beautiful knack for inviting the audience into Rose’s world, never once asking for support or approval. Her talent earns both.
Another weakness of the book: not counting Eddie and Rose, most of the characters are expendable bundles of energy. An exception is Sarrah Errington’s savvy Marcy. She’s a hooker and the “loser” who wins the dogfight. Her version of the title song’s a salvo delivered center mass.
Aided by David Brannen’s often rough-house choreography and Terry O’Donnell’s always expert musical direction, director Sean Murray nicely orchestrates clashing cultures: Rose’s stay-at-home San Francisco; and the loose cannon Marines’ cluster-assault on civilization. To their credit, Murray and company don’t pull punches when things turn cruel or when — thanks to Chris Rynne’s lighting but with too much smoke — a firefight breaks out “in country.”
In the last few years, Sean Fanning has blossomed as a scenic designer. His black, wrought-iron set (sleazy North Beach in the background?) doubles as a site for war and peace. But Jacinda Johnston-Fischer’s costumes get ahead of themselves. The clothes, especially the uniforms, are apt for 1963. But when Eddie returns, the women wear the tie-dyed and rainbow-spacey outfits of the Summer of Love, 1967. Did Eddie spend four years in Vietnam? Or did it just seem that way?
Dogfight, A Musical Love Story, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, book by Peter Duchan
Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town
Directed by Sean Murray; cast: Mal Domingo, Sarah Errington, Charles Evans, Jr., Bryan Charles Feldman, Ben Gibson, Catie Grady, Alex Hoeffler, Scott Nickley, Patrick Osteen, Eric Von Metzke, Debra Wanger; scenic design, Sean Fanning; costumes, Jacinda Johnston-Fischer; lighting, Chris Rynne; sound, David Scott; musical director, Terry O’Donnell; choreographer, David Brannen
Playing through August 23; Sunday at 7 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 3 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. 619-337-1525; cygnettheatre.com.
A tractor beam pulls starship NCC-1701-1 down to the planet Deliria, where a deranged scientist looks and acts like Flash Gordon’s Emperor Ming the Merciless (if he’s before your time, be glad, he’s headlined many a nightmare of mine ever since). The scientist, Prospero, experiments with “telegenesis” and shelters his innocent daughter, Miranda.
Sounds like an episode of Star Trek? Well, sort of. In Return to the Forbidden Planet everyone speaks in Shakespearean iambics and sings rock ’n’ roll songs from the early ’60s.
So Miranda (Kelly Derouin) asks “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love?”; Captain Tempest (David S. Humphrey, slinking around like Conrad Birdie) and the cast feel “Good Vibrations”; and Science Officer Gloria (Marlene Montes) nails every song she sings to the rear wall.
The night I caught the show, the over-amped sound system did as well. Someone toned it down for the overstuffed second act, which can’t figure out how to end. Fortunately, New Village Arts has Jon Lorenz directing and Colleen Kollar Smith choreographing. They’re the crack team behind Lamb’s Players’ long-running hit Mixtape and have an alchemical knack for mining musical periods, styles, and movements and making gold. Their touches and weavings bring freshness and humor to a meandering script that, in lesser hands, would play as if Captain Kirk stunned it with a phaser.
Return to the Forbidden Planet, by Bob Carlton
New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State Street, Carlsbad
Directed by Jon Lorenz; cast, Brian Butler, Morgan Carberry, Kevane La’Marr, Kelly Derouin, Manny Fernandes, Charlie Gange, David S. Humphrey, Marlene Montes; scenic design, Natalie Khuen; costumes, Danita Lee; projections, Blake McCarty; lighting, Chris Renda; sound, Garrett Wysocki; musical director, Justin Gray; choreographer, Colleen Kollar Smith
Playing through September 6; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 3 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. 760-433-3245; newvillagearts.org