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BWW Review: DOGFIGHT at Keegan Theatre

Tiziano D'Affuso and Isabelle Smelkinson in DOGFIGHT

While they were seniors at University of Michigan, I had the pleasure of reaching out to a young composing pair named Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Their songs were making the rounds in musical theatre circles in New York and I wanted to produce a concert of their music at Joe's Pub. We got a bunch of incredible performers together, including Celia Keenan-Bolger, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Gavin Creel, Steve Pasquale, and many others, and had an incredible evening of songs from this inventive, hilarious, and gifted team of writers.

Flash forward 9 years, and they've had songs on NBC's SMASH, Disney Channel's "Johnny and the Sprites," and they've received a Tony nomination for A Christmas Story: The Musical. Their newest hit, Dear Evan Hansen just concluded a run at DC's Arena Stage and has announced it will be heading to New York in 2016. In 2013, their musical, Dogfight received a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical after a run at New York's Second Stage Theatre.

Tiziano D'Affuso in DOGFIGHT

Dogfight is now being produced by theatres across the country, including current runs in San Francisco and at Washington D.C.'s Keegan Theatre.

The musical tells the story of a marine about to head to Vietnam for the war that saw an estimated 1.5 million casualties. Birdlace (Tiziano D'Affuso), and his fellow marines Boland (Harrison Smith) and Bernstein (David Landstrom) are on leave in San Francisco when they plan a party, like the soldiers before them, called "The Dogfight." All the soldiers put money in a pot and compete by bringing the ugliest girl and dancing with her at the party.

Birdlace finds the plain and awkward Rose (Isabelle Smelkinson) working late night in a diner and invites her to the Dogfight. He quickly finds his humanity and realizes Rose doesn't deserve to go through the humiliation of the party. Unfortunately, he realizes too late, and the somewhat desperate Rose insists on attending. What you imagine might happen, happens, feelings are hurt, marines get slapped, terrible things get said. The meat of the story really comes out in the second act when Birdlace finds Rose to apologize. All-in-all, story-wise, it's On The Town meets Carrie...without the pig's blood and psychokinesis. Musically, it's stunning.

The newly-renovaTed Keegan Theatre is a beautiful space that will undoubtedly have a long creative future. And Dogfight is a perfect piece to be launching their new space. Matthew Keenan, the scenic designer behind the show, is one of the true heroes of this production. Despite a relatively small space, his creativity in making a unit set an appropriate background for a battlefield, bar, diner, bridge, tattoo parlor, bathroom, bedroom, bus, and marine barracks is remarkable. Along with Colin Dieck's lighting design, and Jesse Shipley's period costumes, the picture is painted with perfection.

The score is beautiful and not an easy one for singers or musicians, Jake Null's musical direction is tight and in moments that could easily become a nightmare under less-experienced leadership, it simply flies.

Isabelle Smelkinson and Dani Stoller in DOGFIGHT

The cast is strong, led by D'Affuso and Smelkinson. As Birdlace, D'Affuso brings us a complicated portrayal. Vocally, it's as if the songs were written for him - as I said, this is not an easy score, and he handles not only the notes, but the meaning behind them beautifully. At times though, his reading has a somewhat paint-by-numbers feel. During the second act, he finds his stride as everything becomes a bit less awkward.

As Rose, Smelkinson brings an innocence necessary to the role and a stunning voice to boot. The ensemble moves in and out seamlessly under the direction of Christina A. Coakley and Michael Innocenti. And I'd be remiss not to mention a clear standout - Dani Stoller as Marcy, a prostitute hired to take part in the Dogfight contest, manages to steal every scene she's in. At times, it almost feels like you're watching a different show when she's onstage. She's generous with the other actors, but manages to shine spectacularly in her scenework and especially in the song, "It's a Dogfight."

There are a few moments that were unnecessary to the plot, and as comic elements, were rather cheap. In 2015, (even when the show is set in 1963), it's no longer necessary to depend on transphobic and racist humor. This piece is far better than that, and it's beneath the artists and creators to use "guy in a dress" or inane Native American stereotypes to get laughs.

Overall, Dogfight is a beautiful story, well-told and beautifully-sung in Keegan's new theatre. It runs through September 19th and tickets can be purchased at www.keegantheatre.com.


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