Review: DOGFIGHT is a Critique of Machismo Disguised as a Celebration

By: Jun. 18, 2016
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DOGFIGHT is a musical with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul and a book by Peter Duchan. It is adapted from Nancy Savoca's 1991 film and premiered Off-Broadway in 2012. The current production by Austin Theatre Project is the Central Texas premiere.

An intimate new musical with a small cast, DOGFIGHT shines a light on the nastier aspects of young Marines, especially the ritual where each man tries to find the ugliest girl to bring to a bar to win a bet. It is this ritual that gives the work its name. A look at swaggering, macho culture at its worst, dehumanizing both the women and the faceless enemy the boys are being dispatched to fight.

For the most part, the music is discordant and jarring in rhythm, and the script's display of testosterone leads to a near-perpetual state of unease until the show settles into the almost old-fashioned love story in the second act. The core of the story is one of the meanest boy-meets-girl meetings ever seen on stage. It's San Francisco, 1963 and a group of Marines celebrate their last night stateside by holding a "dogfight". This is the long-standing tradition where men compete to score the ugliest date for a party. As one of the boys so poetically puts it, "It's not over till the fat lady barks." There is historic significance to the fact these boys leave in the morning for "this little country near India called Vietnam". Everything is about to change for them and the world around them. It is the death of innocence in America.

The show starts in 1967 when Eddie Birdlace (Adam Munoz), fresh back from Vietnam, is riding the bus to San Francisco. While traveling, he remembers Rose Fenny (Alycia Cornwell) and the night he met her four years earlier. As his memories overwhelm him we go back to 1963 on a military bus. Private First Class Birdlace and his buddies are fresh out of training. When they arrive in San Francisco, they plan to take the town by storm on their last night in the USA. Times have changed since On the Town, and the world has gotten a lot uglier. Birdlace and his buddies, Boland (Makenzie McClure) and Bernstein (Owen Ziegler), call themselves the Three Bees. The plans for the night are simple: find the ugliest date for the party, win the money and wind up in a tattoo parlor to get identical tattoos of three bumble bees.

Birdlace's search brings him to a diner, where he finds Rose quietly playing guitar. He flirts and eventually invites Rose to be his date. Not knowing the truth, Rose excitedly prepares for her very first date. We also see the other Marines find their dates, including Boland, who breaks the established rules of the dogfight by inviting Marcy (Danielle Ruth), a hooker who negotiates for a larger share of the cash prize for winning. As Birdlace and Rose walk to the party, she reveals intimate details about herself to him. By the time they reach the party, Birdlace finds his own prejudices shaken up by this shy waitress and he begins to change his mind on subjecting Rose to the contest. His suggestion that they ditch the party and get a bite to eat makes Rose thinks he's embarrassed for his friends to meet her. Birdlace agrees to go to the party hoping he can get through it without Rose becoming wise. I don't have to tell you it doesn't go the way he was hoping. By the end, female strength prevails when all his macho posturing has been reduced to rubble.

While most of the music is too discordant and jarring to be really memorable, there are two moments that are first rate. "It's a Dogfight", the duet where Marcy explains to Rose what is actually going on, is powerfully sung and acted and absolutely soars. The other great duet comes in Act Two, when Rose and Birdlace sing "First Date/Last Night". Melodic with beautiful lyrics, the song is the private thoughts each has as they walk together after the horrible events of the evening.

There's a lovely chemistry between Alycia Cornwell and Adam Munoz. When Eddie returns to Rose to apologize and winds up falling in love, there is a beguiling charm to their romantic awkwardness. Mr. Munoz does a great job in this role with a slow convincing change to his character and slow steady growth. I also found Ms. Cornwell to be absolutely charming with a lovely vulnerability and an even lovelier voice. However, there is no way we, as an audience, would ever buy that this woman is unattractive or overweight. There is nothing about her that suggests she would be a prime candidate for a "dogfight". In not casting someone physically right for the role, a great deal of the heart and warmth has been lost. The effect is not unlike casting a thin girl as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray.

Other notable performances are Danielle Ruth, who commands the stage as Marcy and delivers that killer duet in Act One with Ms. Cornwell. Lariena Brown, as Ruth Two Bear, is deadpan delight. She's also is a standout later in the show as the hooker the boys go to in order to lose their virginity.

I found the staging, choreography and setting by Joshua Denning to be smart and sharply executed and he drew fine performances from this hard-working and very talented cast; however, I do question why the fog machine was on almost constantly through the show. For the San Francisco outdoors and bar scenes, it was most effective. Why there was fog in Rose's bedroom that was so thick I couldn't see her face in the pivotal bedroom scene, I don't really understand. I also thought it was a strange choice to put Birdlace with his back to the audience during the restaurant scene, obscuring the face of a character in a life altering moment.

As always, David Blackburn gets great vocal work out of the company, continuing his tradition of some the finest sounding musicals in town. The lighting, by James Jennings, was powerful and greatly enhanced the production. I also found Veronica Prior's costumes to be spot on.

DOGFIGHT continues Austin Theatre Project's line of smart, edgy musical entertainment. While there are a few missteps with this production, they are not enough that anyone should miss out on experiencing this cleverly written new musical.

DOGFIGHT Book by Peter Duchan, Music & Lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul

Running time: Approximately Two Hours plus one intermission

ADVISORY: Adult Language

DOGFIGHT, produced by Austin Theatre Project, at Trinity Street Black Box Theatre ( 901 Trinity St, Austin, TX 78701).

Playing through June 26, 2016. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 5:30 PM.

Tickets are $25-$35.

Box Office:


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