BWW Review: Dogfight's Return To Japan - A Good Bet

BWW Review: Dogfight's Return To Japan - A Good BetIn Toho Stage's return engagement of Dogfight patrons may recognize several company members. All but three actors were part of the Japanese premiere in 2015 at Theater Crea in Chiyoda. Based on the 1991 Warner Brothers film written by Bob Comfort, the musical stays faithful to the screenplay. This current revival in three cities- Osaka, Tokyo, and Nagoya­- features the all-Japanese cast in a distinctly American story set in the backdrop of the Vietnam War.

So what exactly is the international appeal for a somewhat obscure piece? The story magnifies societal norms and triggers the seeds of feminist power, which offers a profound relevance to today's audiences. With a catchy score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul this revival features more dancing than the original production. The minimal set highlights a dynamic band on stage led by Kazuna Osumi. The original Off-Broadway production premiered in 2012 at New York's Second Stage Theater and received the 2013 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical. In 2015, the Netherlands produced the first foreign language production, and although the American team was not involved in setting the Tokyo revival, it sanctioned the final translation. In dialogue with book writer Peter Duchan, he says:

"Our story is about how [Eddie and Rose] change each other over the course of one turbulent night. It's an exchange of mutual growth and, I hope, mutual pleasure."

The opening scene reveals Eddie Birdlance (Tomoyuki Yara), a marine on a bus in 1967, who returns home hardened from war ("Take Me Back"). The mood shifts to a more innocent time, San Francisco 1963, as Eddie and his buddies are out on the town for their last night of freedom before they are deployed. In momentary departure from war, Birdlace (Yara), Boland (Masataka Nakagauchi), and Bernstein (Yusuke Yata) energetically dance their way through "Some Kinda Time." The synchronized moves choreographed by Ryosuke Sakuragi were more reminiscent of a Backstreet Boys concert, including the trio's sun-kissed bleached blonde hair, than marines on leave. But their wholesome veneer erodes with a cruel game: each marine bets $50 and whoever brings the ugliest girl to a party wins the pot.

In "Hey Good Lookin" the guys flaunt their manhood and flirt with women in the audience to charm their potential dates. Birdlace discovers a guitar-strumming waitress named Rose at a diner and approaches her. The biggest hurdle in the production is casting Emma Miyazawa who is hardly a "dog." With big brown eyes and a stunning voice she is instantly lovable. How Birdlace or anyone could view her the butt of a brutal joke took some getting used to but he focuses on a mutual love of folk music and convinces Rose to "Come To A Party."

Miyazawa's "Nothing Short Of Wonderful" is beautifully interpreted, as she feels noticed for the first time. She tosses several dresses around her bedroom in self-deprecation, while getting dressed for the evening. She settles on a pink frock with matching pink clown-like painted cheeks. The three B's collect their dates but upon arrival, Birdlace has second thoughts and tries to deter Rose from going inside.

"That Face" a robust cha-cha performed by Arata Hino, a Johnny Casino-esque crooner, makes light of the moment when the contest is judged. Birdlace steers away from the dance floor but Rose, unaware of the ploy, insists that they join the other couples. After drinking too much, she races to the bathroom and encounters Marcy (Chizu Hosaka), Boland's promiscuous date and contest winner. Hosaka's pipes assert the terms of the bet as she belts out the title song "Dogfight." In an edgy costume of fishnets, knee-high boots, and green romper, she reveals her past involvement in the game and motivates Rose to stand up to Birdlace. Furious, Rose storms out of the bathroom, slaps Birdlace, and exits.

Rose is at the forefront of the Women's Liberation movement, standing up to Birdlace instead of accepting or laughing off the mean and childlike game. Miyazawa's "Pretty Funny" is touching and relatable as she works through hurt and shame. The central conflict is a cautionary tale that challenges us to wonder: would you give Eddie a second chance?

At the top of Act Two, the men persist in their arrogance and visit a prostitute but Birdlace cannot shake his guilt, and breaks away to apologize to Rose. She cautiously accepts and they hash out the anticipation in "First Date/Last Night." Over dinner, Rose cuts through Birdlace's machismo and they connect in a raw and vulnerable way. They stroll near the Golden Gate Bridge and Rose admits to new discoveries through poignant lyrics and a soaring melody:

"I never even knew a world was waiting

Somehow something awful made that world appear

Maybe this sounds crazy but I'm happy that it happened

Happy that I came

Happy that I'm here"

Rose awakens to the harsh cruelties of humanity, but her newfound confidence is empowering. Duchan expands that she "teaches [Birdlace] compassion and empathy-tools he is discouraged from using in the Marines. She learns to stand up for herself and that she won't settle for feeling less than [that]."

Birdlace's tentative heart slowly opens over the course of the night. When Rose nervously invites him home, they consummate the relationship in "Give Way." The next morning, he leaves for Vietnam where Birdlace witnesses the senseless deaths of his friends, including his closest, the two B's. The play transitions to where it began in 1967 and as a sole survivor of the trio, Birdlace's delivery of "Come Back" as a lost and broken man is impactful. He surprises Rose at the diner and the estranged lovers embrace, left to an uncertain fate.

Six American productions are scheduled this year, and in an era of #metoo and #timesup, Dogfight should continue to flourish and leave a lasting impression with audiences all over the globe.

Credits: Music and Lyrics: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Book: Peter Duchan, Director: Kazuya Yamada, Musical Director: Shoichi Tama, Choreographer: Ryosuke Sakuragi, Costume Designer: Hanako Kurosu, Set Designer: Masako Ito, Lighting Designer: Junichi Kashiwakura, Band Leader: Kazuna Osumi

Review by Mara Jill Herman

Toho Stage Consultant: Ayano Yotsugi

Off-Broadway Consultant: Peter Duchan

Photo by Takako Kishi © Toho Theatrical Div.

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