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Dogfight
Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Book by Peter Duchan
Based on the Warner Bros. Film and Screenplay by Bob Comfort
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
October 8, 2015

Shannon Cothran, Brendan Ochs Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Shannon Cothran, Brendan Ochs
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

One of the things I love about being a theatre reviewer is getting the chance to see great new plays I haven’t seen before. Dogfight, currently being presented by Stray Dog Theatre, is one of those fortunate discoveries. With an intriguing story, strong characters, a great score, and excellent casting, this is one of the surprise hits of the year, as far as I’m concerned.

Based on a somewhat obscure 1991 film, the story follows a group of Marines in 1963 San Francisco. They’re about to be shipped off to Vietnam and they are determined to enjoy their last night in the States. Eddie Birdlace (Brendan Ochs) and his buddies Boland (Luke Steingruby) and Bernstein (Kevin O’Brien)–who refer to themselves proudly as the “Three Bees”–are among the Marines attending a dance that will feature the unfair and objectifying contest referred to as a “dogfight” in which each man competes to find the most unattractive date, with the “winner” taking home the pot of prize money. While the Marines are out looking for their dates, Eddie wanders into a diner where he meets Rose (Shannon Cothran), a sweet but socially awkward young waitress, and invites her to the dance. What he doesn’t bargain for, however, is that he’ll find himself genuinely drawn to the idealistic Rose, or that his friend Boland will skirt the rules of the dance and hire an opportunistic date, Marcy (Sara Rae Womack), who has her own agenda. The dance isn’t the whole story, though. In fact, it’s just the beginning, as the play explores various relationships and attitudes among the Marines and the civilians they encounter, as well as challenging the casual sexism of the Marines in the story, and exploring the concepts of war, mortality, and the permanence of friendships.

It’s an exceptionally well-written show with a strong, memorable score that manages to be modern and evocative of the era at the same time. Especially effective are Rose’s songs such as “Give Way”, “Before It’s Over”, and her duet with Eddie, “First Date, Last Night”. The story is told in flashback, as Eddie takes a bus ride back to San Francisco a few years after the main action of the play, and the treatment of a Vietnam vet’s homecoming is poignantly portrayed. The show also does a good job of portraying well-rounded characters, managing to make the Marines interesting and sympathetic characters despite some of their more unsavory attitudes. The actors deserve a lot of credit for this sympathy, as well, with Steingruby’s shady Boland and O’Brien’s eager Bernstein being brought to life convincingly.

The centerpiece of the show, acting-wise, is the duo of Cothran’s Rose and Ochs’s Eddie. Cothran, returning to the stage after a long absense, is a discovery as the wide-eyed, gawky but sweet Rose. Her sense of self-confidence visibly grows as the story goes along, and she has a strong, expressive voice. She also accompanies herself ably on guitar in several songs. Her chemistry with Ochs is palpable, and Ochs matches her performance with a charm and poignancy of his own. Every moment these two are on stage together is a highlight. There’s also excellent support from the rest of the cast, notably from Womack as the enterprising Marcy, Jenni Ryan as Rose’s mother, and Jason Meyers in several roles including a Marine sergeant and a lounge singer.  There’s a strong ensemble in excellent voice, as well, and the staging is dynamic and well thought-out.

The technical elements of the show add to the overall atmosphere and drama of the performance. Rob Lippert’s multi-level set is versatile and vivid–suggesting the Golden Gate bridge and other San Francisco sites, as well as the Marine base, the dance hall, the diner, and more. There are also nicely detailed costumes by Gary F. Bell and evocative lighting by Tyler Duenow.

I had heard of this play before seeing it, but only knew the very basic premise, and I’m glad I got to see it. Stray Dog Theatre’s Dogfight is a surprising, poignant, and memorable show with a great score and standout performances. This is one of the best musicals I’ve seen all year. It’s definitely one that shouldn’t be missed.

Cast of Dogfight Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Cast of Dogfight
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Dogfight runs at the Tower Grove Abbey until October 24, 2015.

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A Christmas Story, The Musical
Book by Joseph Robinette, Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Directed by Matt Lenz
Originally Directed on Broadway by John Rando
Choreographed by Jason Sparks, Based on Broadway Choreography by Warren Carlyle
The Fox Theatre
December 17, 2014

Colton Maurer and Cast Photo: A Christmas Story National Tour

Colton Maurer (Center) and Cast
Photo: A Christmas Story National Tour

A Christmas Story, the film, quickly became a holiday classic, to the point where some people make it a tradition to watch it every year, and cable channels show marathons of it in the holiday season.  In light of the trend of making movies into stage musicals, A Christmas Story seems an obvious choice, and the resulting show was nominated for the Tony for Best Musical in 2013. The US National Tour, currently running at the Fox Theatre, is a fun, well-cast production that celebrates the highlights of the movie and manages to find new angles to the story, as well.

The musical covers all the familiar ground of the film, based on the stories of author Jean Shepherd.  Shepherd is a faceless narrator of the action in the film, but here he appears (played by Chris Carsten) hosting his New York radio show and telling the story as a reflection of Christmases past.  Shepherd doesn’t simply narrate, either. He appears throughout the story commenting on the action and occasionally interacting with the characters.  The focus of Shepherd’s story is Ralphie Parker, who is played at alternating performances by Evan Gray and (at the performance I saw) Colton Maurer.  He lives in a small town in Indiana in 1940 with his mother (Susannah Jones), his “Old Man” (Christopher Swan) and younger brother Randy (Cal Alexander), and all he wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun.  The story echoes the film for the most part, following Ralphie’s quest to convince the adults in his life–such as his parents and his teacher, Miss Shields (Avital Asaleen)–that the coveted air rifle would be the ideal gift for him.

Many of the famous situations from the film are here, from the flagpole incident involving Ralphie’s friends Flick (Christian Dell’Edera) and Schwartz (Johnny Marx), to the bullying by Scut Farkus (Brandon Szep) and Grover Dill (Seth Judice), to the visit to the department store Santa (Andrew Berlin) and more.  The Santa scene gets a production number, “Up On Santa’s Lap” and a chorus of elves. It’s more comic than terrifying (as the film scene was), but it works for the stage.  Other incidents that get clever musical treatment include the arrival of the infamous leg lamp, which becomes “Major Award”, hilariously choreographed and danced by Swan and the lamp-toting ensemble, including the lamps in their kick line.  The fantasy sequences are handled well, too, with “Ralphie to the Rescue” casting Ralphie as an old time Western hero, saving his teacher and classmates from the bad guys with his trusty Red Ryder air rifle. There’s also a fun dance sequence in Act 2 with the jazzy “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out”,  taking Miss Shields and Ralphie’s classmates to an imaginary Speakeasy, and featuring spectacular tap dancing by Asaleen and featured tapper Judice, leading the energetic ensemble of kids.  The show’s score is strong, for the most part, with the recurring theme of “It All Comes Down to Christmas” a hummable highlight, and a few songs that showcase Ralphie’s mother, like “What a Mother Does” and “Just Like That”. In fact, the parents seem to be a bigger presence in this show than in the film, although Ralphie is still the main focus.

Since this is Ralphie’s story as told by Jean Shepherd, the casting of those two characters is critical for the success of this show, and this production gets it right. Carsten is amiable and enthusiastic as Shepherd, with a strong presence and some good moments throughout the show, and young Maurer is impressive as the determined, single-minded Ralphie.  He’s a thoroughly engaging protagonist, and even though he stumbles a little on the words to “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun”, he demonstrates a strong voice and great energy.  As Ralphie’s parents, Swan and Jones are also excellent, with Swan delightfully hamming it up in his big dance number, and Jones in excellent voice on her more gentle ballads.  Asaleen gets a great showcase as Miss Shields in the aforementioned “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out”, and the kids’ ensemble is also very strong.

The look of the show is classic and Christmassy, evoking the film but also stylizing it a bit. Walt Spangler’s original design has been adapted for the tour by Michael Carnahan, with its snow globe-like backdrop and snowy-roofed multi-level house for the Parkers.  The scenery is also cleverly adapted in some of the fantasy sequences, such as when Miss Shields’ desk acquires wheels and becomes a covered wagon.  The costumes, adapted by Lisa Zinni from Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s original designs, are colorful and evocative, as is the striking atmospheric lighting originally designed by Howell Binkley and adapted by Charlie Morrison.

Overall, this show accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s an entertaining holiday show that celebrates the famous film without strictly copying it.  Personally, I’ve only seen the film in its entirety once (in addition to numerous clips), but my impression is that this show seems to capture much of the spirit of the film while expanding the story a bit, especially the focus on the parents.  With a strong, likable cast and a fun visual theme, it’s a sweet, funny and nostalgic story for all ages.

Susannah Jones, Christopher Swan, Cal Alexander, Colton Maurer Photo: A Christmas Story National Tour

Susannah Jones, Christopher Swan, Cal Alexander, Colton Maurer
Photo: A Christmas Story National Tour

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