- A scene from the 1991 film, Dogfight, the inspiration behind Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's Off Broadway play of the same name.
Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s set this meat-headed, mean-spirited hunger game to music. That’s the altogether improbable construct of the internationally lauded musical Dogfight, a melodic take on the 1991 film that centers on a threesome of newbie Marines in the early 1960s. Before shipping out for active duty in Vietnam, they engage in a dogfight, the time-honored, if terribly rude, rite of passage among Marines. (What’s worse, it seems this tradition is for real — though please don’t tell me if it’s still alive and kicking).
Dogfight is the work of composer-lyricist team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, or Pasek and Paul, as they are regularly called. Of late, the duo has been celebrated for their recent Broadway run of Dear Evan Hansen, as well as for their lyrics for La La Land. Dogfight premiered Off Broadway at New York’s Second Stage Theatre in 2012, and has since been mounted in prominent playhouses around the world.
Now, Charleston gets a gander at a few not-so-good men in a new production by Village Repertory Company that is directed by Keely Enwright with musical direction by Leah Megli. Putting a new soundtrack to the age-old dance of aggression and attraction, Dogfight does for sexual politics what Spring Awakening did for teen lust. And both are spawn of Rent, the edgy refresh of the musical genre that unleashed some of our murkier, messier longings through the ineffable power of song.
It goes like this. Three newly initiated, seriously shorn heads, Birdlace (Kevin Deese), Boland (James Ketelaar), and Bernstein (Justin Borak) coin themselves the Three Bees, and set out to seal their bond as Marine buddies by way of a dogfight. And, just as the pundits and politicos around the Vietnam War euphemistically soft-peddled it as the “conflict,” the Bees de-fang their misogynistic carnage. Since the ladies on parade are in the dark about the game, the men shrug it off as a victimless crime. After all there are no casualties. Until there are, that is.
Birdlace runs afoul of his mark, Rose (Alexandria Shanko), a would-be folk singer who channels Joan Baez. She gets under his skin with nagging truths about the skin-deep aspects of beauty. As Birdlace grapples with his better nature, we segue to a far fiercer terrain, the savage, blood-soaked jungles of Vietnam. As Rose prophesizes, the Three Bees are about to fathom what it really means to be treated like chattel, unwittingly thrown into the meat grinder of the war machine.
And so the score guides us through the treacherous tunnels of the human heart. It sparks the machismo in numbers like “Some Kinda Time” and “Hey Good Lookin’” — then in the second act goes deeper with reflective, sweeter songs like “Pretty Funny,” ”First Date”/”Last Night,” “Before It’s Over,” and “Give Way.” The ensemble brings them home, with performances that are at times splendid and soulful (Shanko’s stirring solos) and at others more or less serviceable (you’ll know them when you hear them).
As Birdlace, Deese has a particularly daunting job — convincing as both cad and conscience, inhabiting unchecked testosterone along with tested morality. He embodies Birdlace with strident appeal, albeit fighting mightily for some of the harder-won notes. As Rose, Shanko is pitch perfect, in every sense of the word.
Other standouts include Bess Lawson in her portrayal of Maggy, the pay-for-hire ringer in the dogfight — the proverbial hooker with a heart of cold. Rather than nursing rage, Maggy trades on the degradations of males to come out on top, at least financially. In a role reversal, the seemingly sweet Bernstein (Borak) shows the most fangs in the show, by way of a brutal scene that illustrates how the humiliation of women is a savage game of chillingly diminishing returns.
The action spans a two-level faux-bricked set, complementing the theater’s exposed brick interior. The configuration well suits the cabaret setup, while also serving to ratchet up the grandeur of the bigger musical numbers. Julie Ziff’s costumes paint a picture of the San Francisco scene from beehives and buzz cuts to long hair and folkwear.
By the end of Dogfight, we come to forgive the shameful, youthful transgressions of the soldiers. If they return home at all, they will likely be broken — and, once back in the land of Dinah Shore, they will be vilified to boot. So it goes in love and war. Wait, make that love and conflict. [event-1]