All’s fair?

Dare 2 Defy questions love and war in Dogfight: The Musical

By Laura Jones

Photo: (l-r) Layne Roate as Boland, Ray Zupp as Birdland, and Bobby Mitchum as Bernstein on the set by Zupp for Dogfight: The Musical; photo: Zach Earnhardt

If you’re old enough to remember the ’90s indie film scene, “Dogfight” will most likely sound familiar. In it, River Phoenix plays Eddie Birdlace, a young Marine cruising San Francisco with his platoon the night before their deployment to Vietnam. Their mission?  Find the homeliest girl in town and win the pot of money put up by each man, hence the double entendre “dogfight.”

Eddie’s choice to take home the prize is Rose, played in the 1991 film by plain-faced Lili Taylor, a waitress and wannabe folk singer, the fighting Marine’s political opposite. Although Rose and Eddie are from different worlds, in those brief moments before President John F. Kennedy is killed and the Marines go off to war, what the two do share is loneliness. Eddie is soon won over by Rose’s inner beauty, and by the close of the first act, neither seems fit for the base cruelty of the dogfight.

Dogfight: the Musical, a production of relative newcomer Dare 2 Defy, brings the same story to the stage, with music by “La La Land’s” Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. It’s clear that in Dogfight, musical luminary Stephen Sondheim influenced the two.  There’s much of the same crisp word play, or an attempt at it anyway.  (Rose’s song, “Nothing Short of Wonderful,” shares a similar sound with the Baker’s Wife’s “Moments in the Woods” from Into the Woods, for instance.)  So if you’re interested in that type of quick rhyme work, Dogfight is for you.

The difference is that Dogfight also brings with it a sense of history and the pathos of the pre- and post-Vietnam War.  Eddie Birdlace (played by Ray Zupp) and his buddies Boland (Layne Roate) and Bernstein (Bobby Mitchum) embody Marine machismo—Do or Die!  Semper Fi!—that also plays out in the music, set, and lighting. The backdrop of the stage, a chewed wooden flag, suggests that not all of their patriotic impulses may turn out well.  While they invoke their fathers’ their service and war, history fills the show with a foreboding that these three “B’s” won’t receive the same hero’s welcome. Setting the play in San Francisco, home of Haight-Ashbury and the peace movement, only adds to the underlying complication.

Performance-wise, Dare 2 Defy’s Dogfight is a generally strong show.  Zupp’s Eddie is a clean-cut presence with a smoldering rage barely held in check beneath the surface.  His foil, Mackensie King as Rose, has a sharp soprano that cuts through his defenses.  She stands her ground and shows him that beauty is more than skin deep.  The other two “B’s,” Roate and Mitchum, provide that best-buddy vibe we’ve all come to expect in military service stories.  Roate is thin and strong; Mitchum, the four-eyed virgin. With Zupp, they’re a cohesive bunch. I also enjoyed Skyler McNeely, who brings several roles to life in the ensemble. While his vocals weren’t the standout, his comic timing always gave me something to look forward to whenever he happened into a scene.

Some small technical feedback: actors didn’t always find their lighting marks, and unfortunately, the sound design presented some issues. In the first act, it was difficult to hear Eddie, and in the second, the piano frequently boomed hot over the actors. I also wished for a bit more space on the stage, so that choreography would feel less cramped. But these problems were no doubt the result of the show being early in its run, and will be ironed out.

One thing that can’t be overlooked in discussing a play like Dogfight is the opportunity it provides us to revisit history. The themes of the show resonate universally, with deeper questions like, What is beauty? and What makes a hero? 

But where the film version offers a moodier, internal contemplation, the musical is boisterous and big, presenting dance and song that evoke the era. The person I brought along with me, let’s just call her my mother, left the show with this rumination: “That was my life,” she says.

Dogfight: the Musical reminded her of a time when young men left for war, hoping to accomplish something great, but came home—or didn’t, as the case may be—disrespected and worse for the wear. The performance is filled with pathos, as well as the opportunity to revisit this time and remember.

 

Dogfight: the Musical takes the stage Friday-Sunday, April 7-8 in the Mathile Black Box Theatre at the Schuster Center, 138 N. Main St. in downtown Dayton. Show starts at 8 p.m. both dates, with a 2 p.m. showing Saturday. Tickets are $24.50 for adults, with senior, student, and military discounts available. For tickets or more information, please call Ticket Center Stage at 937.228.3630 or visit Dare2Defy.com.

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