BWW Review: DOGFIGHT at the Eagle Theatre is 'Some Kinda Time'
Dogfight, currently playing at The Eagle Theatre in Hammonton, NJ is a contemporary musical with book by Peter Duncan, and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Dogfight is based on Nancy Savoca's 1991 film starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor.
Compassion takes center stage in this beautifully romantic and hauntingly heartbreaking musical. It's November 21, 1963. On the evening of their deployment to a small but growing conflict in Southeast Asia, three young Marines set out for one final boy's night of debauchery, partying, and maybe a little bit of trouble. But, when Corporal Eddie Birdlace (played by Sal Pavia) meets Rose (played by Annabelle Szepietowski), an awkward and idealistic waitress whom he enlists to win a cruel bet with his fellow recruits, she rewrites the rules of the game and teaches him the power of love and compassion. Based on the 1991 Warner Brothers film, Dogfight is packed with an unstoppable pop score, an unexpected love affair, and a genuine and charming message that takes audiences to new heights.
The "Three Bees"-Birdlace and his two friends Boland (played by Joe Canuso) and Bernstein (played by Brian Keith Graziani)-scour the town to find dates for the titular "Dogfight", a party and bet between the marines where everyone puts money in the pot and the marine with the ugliest date takes home the loot. When the innocent and introverted Rose is asked out to the party by Birdlace, she accepts, excited about her first-ever date and unknowing the ulterior motive of the "Dogfight". During the evening, Rose tries to make the most of her night, until Marcy (played by Rebecca Krainik), a prostitute, reveals the true meaning of the get-together. Rose runs off and Birdlace, feeling sorry, goes after her. What follows is a story of forgiveness, empathy and romance.
First and foremost, Benj and Paul's score is moving and memorable. The music has a similar feeling to Duncan Sheik's Spring Awakening or Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years. Dogfight takes place in the 1960's but the music is definitely on the more contemporary-side. The Eagle's production features a live 6-piece band, and to me, the singing in the show rivals the vocal strength of the original cast recording. Krainik as lewd lady of the night Marcy blew me away with her beautiful belt in the song "It's A Dogfight". And leading lady Annabelle Szepietowski as Rose has a melodious, mesmerizing voice. Her heart-breaking rendition of "Pretty Funny" compellingly closes the first act, and her voice throughout the show blends amazingly with co-star Sal Pavia.
Sal Pavia not only plays the leading role of Birdlace, but he also serves as the production's choreographer. Pavia proves he is multitalented with fun and funky choreography, especially for the upbeat numbers "Hey Good Lookin" and "Some Kinda Time".
Dogfight takes place primarily in flashback. The first and last scenes of the musical are set in 1967, but most of the show is set in 1963. The subtleties in Dogfight director Ed Corsi's directing express the essence of the era and show the difference only a few years (and a war) made on the culture of San Francisco. There is a contrast in the show between the "Frisco" of the early sixties still lingering in the nifty fifties and the unfriendly city filled with hippie culture when Birdlace returns from abroad. The production overall in design, effect and experience is extremely well thought-out. I even appreciate how the run of the show is in November, the same month that the show's setting.
Dogfight scenic designer and production manager, Don Swenson, designed a versatile set resembling ripped up pages from a vintage newspaper. Throughout the show, cubbies and doors in the set open up to reveal unexpected extensions of the set that provide more specific locales like a dinner, a tattoo parlor and arcade. The torn edges of the newspaper on the scenery dramaturgically echo how the "Three Bees" and their troop are torn from their families, homes and everyday lives and shipped off to war.
The show has heavy themes, but though the show has melancholy moments, it is well balanced with happy-go-lucky hijinks and hilarious highlights. Amanda Spivack's cameo as the impassive mannified Ruth, Bernstein's date to the Dogfight, made audience members literally laugh out loud.
One of my favorite moments in the musical is when Rose and Birdlace go on their first date at a fancy restaurant that Birdlace admits he can hardly afford. After a bout with a contemptuous maître d, Rose finagles a story to get them in without a reservation. During dinner, and throughout the show, Rose asks Birdlace to stop cursing around her. When Birdlace cusses in the restaurant, Rose challenges him by asking him how he would feel if she spoke like that. What follows is Rose's sidesplitting order swearing between each item she asks for.
After a successful date, Rose and Birdlace spend the night together before Birdlace's deployment in the morning. Time flashes forward several years, and Birdlace is back in San Francisco, completely changed by his experience abroad.
Pavia gave me chills as he sang Birdlace's heavy-hearted ballad "Come Back". The song is both technically and emotionally complex, about the difficulty of re-acclimating to society after experiencing the bedlam and brutality of the battlefield. Pavia's performance completely nails the song and its intention.
The community-centric Eagle Theatre always includes well thought out elements of audience engagement in their productions. In keeping with the theme of the show, for Dogfight, The Eagle has a station in the lobby where audience members can write letters of thanks and support to troops overseas in partnership with an organization called Operation Gratitude. In further support of the armed forces, the theatre is also offering a special promotion on tickets for veterans and active duty military.
Additionally, The Eagle is engaging audiences by having a talk back discussion after the performance on Thursday November 21st and a "please touch" performance on Thursday December 5th where audience members can come up onto the stage to explore the set with the guidance of theatre staff.
Dogfight is a thought-provoking and moving musical about forgiveness, love and purpose. It is a show you will want to "bee" there for. You will definitely be wanting to "come back". Dogfight plays now through December 8th at The Eagle Theatre in Hammonton, NJ. For more information about the show and to purchase tickets, please visit ww.eagletheatre.org
Dogfight is recommended for ages 16+ due to adult language and themes.