Review - Dogfight: How To Handle A Woman

America may have abruptly lost its Camelot on the afternoon of November 22nd, 1963, but in the extraordinarily rich and tender new musical Dogfight, it was the night before that a pair of drops in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea began to sparkle.

Based on the same-titled 1991 film, the ambitious and challenging Dogfight sets the bar extremely high for upcoming musicals in this fledgling theatre season. With a dynamic and textured character-driven score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, a provocative and heart-tugging book by Peter Duchan and director Joe Mantello's vibrant naturalistic production, Dogfight takes a story that, at first, you'd never believe could sing, and gives it a realistic shot of romance and pathos.

Initiated by the memory of a marine returning to the states after seeing combat in Vietnam, the action is set in San Francisco on the night before he and his buddies are to be sent out to some little country "near India" that they've never heard of, convinced they're just going to teach the locals how to fight for themselves and then come back home. The primary trio includes the tough, foul-mouthed Eddie Birdlace (Derek Klena), the cocky leader, Boland (Josh Segarra) and the nerdy follower Bernstein (Nick Blaemire). (Since the name "Bernstein" doesn't exist in the film, one would assume it's added to salute the great composer who wrote a previous musical about three military men about to be shipped off.)

A tradition among their fellow "jarheads" (a derogatory nickname reserved for them to call themselves) on such a night is to hold what's known as a Dogfight; each marine puts money into the pot to cover the expenses for a party and a cash prize for the fellow who can venture into town and come back with the ugliest date.

Sure, it's a vulgar premise, but in the minds of these kids just out of high school they're doing no harm. The girls are to be treated with respect and, without ever telling them the real reason they were asked out, each marine is expected to show her a good time. While the authors never ask us to sympathize with their actions, as the drama unfolds we gradually begin to understand that each of these guys has been trained to think that no matter how insecure they may feel about themselves, as a unit they are a privileged, unstoppable force that will achieve every goal, as expressed in their motto "Semper Fi, Do or Die."

That attitude is undoubtedly necessary to succeed in combat, but their immature minds haven't adjusted to setting such thoughts aside in the civilian world; especially apparent in a sickening scene where they pressure a prostitute, who has made it clear that she is physically unable to take another customer that night, into taking Bernstein into her bed for his first time. When his mission is accomplished, the young marine gleefully bursts out of the room sporting a big, innocent smile, like a kid on Christmas morning who just unwrapped the bicycle he's been wanting all year. He has successfully dehumanized the obstacle standing in the way of him fulfilling his assignment.

Perhaps to avoid audience discomfort, the actresses playing their dates are, in fact, attractive women playing exaggerated flaws for comic effect, like Bernstein's silent, stony-faced pickup (Dierdre Friel) and Boland's ringer, an abrasive prostitute (Annaleigh Ashford) he's promised a percentage of the winnings to if she uglys herself up enough to win. An understandable choice that perhaps rings a little false.

But the central relationship of Dogfight is what gives this grim story its pure sweetness and eventual uplift. Eddie wanders into a diner where he flirts with Rose (Lindsay Mendez), a shy, awkward waitress who only feels confident when she picks up a guitar and sings in the style of folk legends like Woody Guthrie and that new guy Bob Dylan. His attempt to impress her with his own knowledge of folk music is ridiculously phony but she accepts his invitation to the party anyway. It's a fascinating scene through dialogue and song because even though we know Eddie's initial motivation, Klena, through the excellent material, seems so sincere that it's hard to tell if he truly likes Rose or if he's really good at tricking women. And while we can assume that Rose sees right through him, Mendez effectively plays the contrast of her fear of going out with this guy she's just met and her exhilaration that a handsome marine is showing her attention.

When they get to the party, Eddie starts regretting his insensitivity toward his date, but when Rose finds out the real reason for the festivities she confronts him with the most horrifying words you can say to a soldier being shipped off to a hostile environment. It's a numbing climax to the first act.

But by then it's already clear that Mendez, previously exposed to New York audiences primarily as a pop musical belter, is giving a remarkable breakout performance in one of the best written roles to hit Manhattan's musical stages in quite some time. Though her generous belt is utilized when needed, Mantello guides her into subtler, crushing moments that tear your heart out, especially when she's expressing the joy of feeling attractive while the audience knows that what's making her feel that way is a lie.

It's Rose's eventual understanding and acceptance of Eddie that allows him to make himself vulnerable and allows the audience to believe that deep down he's a decent guy who has been protecting his insecurities by going along with the ways of his buddies. Again, it's in the subtler moments where Klena succeeds in making Eddie, if not a totally likeable character, one deserving of sympathy.

The supporting cast is solid, particularly when Blaemire's anxious Bernstein tries to prove his worthiness, Segarra's demeaning Boland tries to establish his authority and when Ashford's tough-talking Marcy sticks up for herself.

Christopher Gattelli's athletic choreography is a raw, testosterone-driven extension of Mantello's staging that may not be as flashy as his Tony-winning work in Newsies but tops it for dramatic excitement.

Dogfight may have its occasional stumbling points, like an ending a bit too vague to be satisfying, but the thrill of what it accomplishes as an emotional piece of musical theatre makes it an exhilarating addition to the young season.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Nick Blaemire, Derek Klena and Josh Segarra; Bottom: Lindsay Mendez.

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