Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Review: DOGFIGHT at ArtsWest

Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Book by Peter Duchan
Through Nov. 22, 2014
ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery
4711 California Ave SW 
Seattle, WA 98116

There have been some terrific musicals created in the last few years. (And a lot of less terrific ones.) But in most cases, it has been a case of a good score, a good book, good direction, good choreography, and a good cast making a whole that exceeds each of its parts.

And, yes, I think DOGFIGHT is all that. But it also is something far too rare these days: a terrific score, one that I can play over and over again, one that earworms me and won't let go. One that makes me glad that the songwriters, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, may finally be starting to age out of the "so talented at that age I hate them" stage.

The musical is inspired by the superb River Phoenix/Lili Taylor film, written by Bob Comfort and directed by Nancy Savoca, that embodied the optimism of the early incursion in Viet Nam, and the testosterone-poisoned culture that prepared young Marines to go overseas to win the hearts and minds of the people - before LBJ and the machines of war decided that, in order to win their hearts and minds, you'd need to grab them a little lower. Peter Duchan's book captures the heart of the story, and forms a strong frame on which to hang the songs.

The dogfight of the title is a real contest, part of the system that was employed to enable young Marines to depersonalize women, so that enemy women were seen more as "gooks" and less as just like their mothers and sisters. Under the pretext of a date, the men were to bring the ugliest women they could find to a party, at which the one who brought the ugliest would win a cash prize.

Eddie Birdlace - one of the "Three Bees" of his unit, along with Boland and Bernstein - ducks into a diner on the evening of the dogfight (the night before they ship out), and meets Rose Feeny, an innocent, plain waitress who is a beginning songwriter of the Guthrie/Dylan/Baez tradition. He convinces her to go with him, and things go well for the couple - awkwardly well, but well - until Rose finds out what is really going on. 

Through the dogfight, its aftermath, and their subsequent discovery of each other's hidden aspects - Eddie finding Rose's strength and beauty, Rose cutting through to the sensitive man-boy underneath Eddie's bluster - every move is sharp, clear, finely drawn, and real.

The brilliance of the score, to me, is the fact that it manages to be both muscular and sensitive, in a way that few others have managed so well. There are lots of "drag your husbands with you" musicals, of course, as the stereotype goes. And there's a much smaller list of "musicals guys like too" - mostly jukebox shows, like JERSEY BOYS and ROCK OF AGES. (Gay audiences, this paragraph is mostly not for you - we have a whole different set of stereotypes about musicals and our tribe to engage.) But there are very few musicals that manage to have big, blustery, jockish numbers and finely-drawn, sensitive ones too, and to keep them in such balance, across a huge dynamic range. DOGFIGHT's score has taken some heat for this, for not being able to make up its mind. But I think this is its greatest strength: being able to depict the forces churning inside its characters in the variety of its music. 

Eddie's songs (some with the other Marines) range from the bluster of "Some Kinda Time" and "Hometown Hero's Ticker Tape Parade" to the pain of "Come Back"; Rose's, from the rage of "Dogfight" to the sweet strength of "Before It's Over." And if WICKED's "Defying Gravity" is The Audition Song for a generation of belters, so should "Pretty Funny" be the "she can sing AND act" audition song. (And the number of "Pretty Funny" recordings on YouTube, from professionals to students performing, make it look Pretty Certain.) For its characters, torn between who they want to be and who the world tells them to be, the score shows their fullness in a way that reminds me of nothing so much as WEST SIDE STORY's.

This is by no means an easy piece to play, to choreograph, or to stage. Sometimes, as many of you probably do too, I like to play The Casting Game: what Seattle actor would I cast in a role if it were produced here? When I first considered DOGFIGHT, I must admit, while there are lots of young singing actors more than up to the role, I would have bet two dollars against your one that Eddie would be played by Kody Bringman - and you'd have won if you took me up on it. Bringman brought the same audacity to Eddie that he did to Andrew Jackson on the same stage in BLOODY, BLOODY a couple of years back. But I was reminded even more of his performance in the staging of NEXT TO NORMAL co-produced by Contemporary Classics and the dear, departed Balagan. (This production of DOGFIGHT was to be an ArtsWest/Balagan co-production until Balagan's sudden disbanding left it fully in ArtsWest's hands.) In both roles, there's a challenging mix of aggression and almost childlike sensitivity, and Bringman nails it.

For Rose, there were lots of great candidates - but the ranks of Seattle's theatre community is frequently blessed with new talent, and in this case, Devon Busswood's Seattle debut is stunningly good, strong and sensitive. 

The rest of the company is a mix of new Seattleites, folks who have played on many of our stages, and recent graduates from Village Theatre Kidstage and other youth theatre programs. The energy of their performances is exceeded only by their power and range. To single one out, as always, in a couple of finely-drawn but larger-than-life character spots, Kirsten deLohr Helland delivers another of those performances which, no matter what else is happening on stage, you'd be a fool not to keep one eye on her.

One of the great strengths of the original off-Broadway production of DOGFIGHT - and there were many - was the incredible, hyperkinetic, hyper-muscular choreography by Christopher Gatelli. Trina Mills more than had her work cut out for her here, and the challenge was raised even higher by ArtsWest's smallish floor-level stage. She more than rises to it, using the intimacy of the stage to make the Marines' athletics more in-your-face, the party dancing even more engaging.

The dynamic range of DOGFIGHT could intimidate a lesser director. But if his work here is any indication of what we can look forward to seeing from Mat Wright, ArtsWest is in good hands with his talents as both director and Artistic Director. He brought together a terrific cast and crew, and went far beyond the cat-herding mode here to bring together a wonderfully unified production, supported by some of Seattle's finest theatre crafts and creative people: Robert Aguilar on lighting design, Ahren Luhrmann on scenic design. Chelsea Cook on costume design, Michael Connolly on sound design, Chris DiStefano on music direction. In some ways, their jobs are best done when you don't notice them; but they were also most noticeable when they shone, the best time for it to be so.

A big shout out to stage manager Dani Franich, whose all-too-brief tenure as Balagan's executive director was notable for putting this project together (with Wright) as a co-production; staying with it when ArtsWest picked up the reins, she brings to it her great strength at keeping it all flowing. (On the night we saw it, she and the cast and crew had to face one of the greatest terrors of the modern theatre, a power glitch - luckily, the timing was such that the leads could continue performing without mikes, and the lights and sound came back just in time for the next number. Still, one of those stories that are perfect over drinks. And require them.)

When I praise DOGFIGHT's score, it is not to diminish the strength of any other part of the show. But in the last couple of years, the number of great new scores can be counted on a single hand (Jason Robert Brown's score for THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY comes immediately to mind, and then, well, give me a few minutes to think about it), and this is one of them. 

A great score, in service to a very good story, beautifully realized. Anyone who thinks that musicals are Just Not For Them (and especially, Not For Guys Like Them), as well as anyone who thinks They Just Don't Write Them Like That Any More, should see it. And so should the rest of you.

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