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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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