“The ugliest girl wins the dough for the guy who brought her.”
On their last night before deployment, six Marines make a bet—a dogfight. The tough-talking Eddie Birdlace finds a waitress for his entry, but he quickly discovers himself falling for her in spite of her appearance. As produced by the San Francisco Playhouse, the strange story of Dogfight is both funny and affecting. It raises questions about gender roles and conventional notions of attractiveness, wrapped up in a sweet story about love and war.
The musical by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Peter Duchan, based on the 1991 film of the same name, is catchy and varied. Pasek’s and Paul’s score finds a pleasant medium between classical musical theater and a more modern, belty sound. The lyrics and dialogue are snappy, with lots of unexpected rhymes and foot-in-mouth moments.
I wasn’t convinced that Dogfight would make a good musical when I learned about the premise, but I’m convinced now.
Most of those screw-ups come from Birdlace, who never manages to say quite what he means. In apologizing to Rose for bringing her to the dogfight, he stupidly stammers out, “I don’t care what you look like!” His hesitations and even his mis-steps make him oddly endearing; we can sympathize with him despite his false bluster and callous bet. The casting and music help, too: Jeffrey Brian Adams sings with a warm, honeyed voice, and the part makes ample use of his gorgeous falsetto. That, plus Birdlace’s frank confessions that his macho persona was an act (after his night with Rose: “You were great… not that I got anything to compare it to”), shows touching vulnerability. The mismatch between his expectation that he and his buddies will return from war as “hometown heroes” and the reality of returning alone and scarred to a hippie culture full of contempt for the military is devastating.
Birdlace’s emotional journey notwithstanding, the star of this show is Rose. Initially adorably awkward, she develops confidence and initiative as Birdlace reveals his insecurities. The incongruously pretty Caitlin Brooke sings the role with fabulously pure tone in both her belting and head registers. A fellow audience member accurately credited her with “the voice of a Disney princess.” Brooke is a comedic tour de force in the dinner date scene, where she convinces a snooty waiter to seat her by pretending to be a pregnant, teary-eyed newlywed. Her deadpan delivery of a cussing-filled dinner order also had the audience in stitches.
The small ensemble played their roles with energy and style. The six Marines executed their choreography crisply and enthusiastically. Their voices blended beautifully, though individuals’ brief solo bits were not always audible. Brandon Dahlquist stood out as Boland—I wish I could have heard more of his strong, resonant singing. The women in the cast played a dizzying array of parts, particularly during “Hey Good-Lookin’,” proving themselves to be both physically and vocally adaptable.
At San Francisco Playhouse, an emotionally raw production, an intimate space, and two stellar leads make for a magical night.
Amy Lizardo’s big belter voice and even bigger personality as Marcy were particularly fun, though she struggled with some of the unreasonably high music. A shout-out is also due to Michael Gene Sullivan, who was intimidating as the sergeant, sultry as the nightclub singer, and hilarious as the snooty waiter.
The cast was ably supported by a six-piece orchestra led by Ben Price. The strings sounded especially lovely during “Pretty Funny” and “First Date, Last Night.” The orchestra sometimes overpowered the singers in the beginning, but the sound balance improved as the show went on. The two-story set (with the Golden Gate Arch in the center) provided a nice hidden area for the instrumentalists as well as great space for the actors to work with. The projections were hit-or-miss, but the spiral staircases and strings of lights were perfect.
I wasn’t convinced that Dogfight would make a good musical when I learned about the premise, but I’m convinced now. At San Francisco Playhouse, an emotionally raw production, an intimate space, and two stellar leads make for a magical night.
Photos: Jessica Palopoli