The Tony-nominated composing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have been the talk of DC of late, getting oodles of attention for the buzz-worthy Dear Evan Hansen, playing Arena Stage, before heading to New York’s Second Stage theatre next spring.
Another of the duo’s shows is heading to our area this month with Keegan’s staging of their 2012 musical, Dogfight (book by Peter Duchan) from Aug. 22 to Sept. 19, which coincidentally had its Off-Broadway debut at Second Stage.
“The wonderful thing about this composing team is that even though their use of modern rhythmic structures coupled with intricate harmonies are embedded in each score, they are extremely facile and craft the composition based on the story and character needs,” says Michael Innocenti, who is co-directing the production with Christina A. Coakley. Just like Mr. Sondheim and the team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Pasek and Paul never force their ‘style’ unnecessarily into a story, but rather let the needs of the characters and theme shine through.”
While this may seem like a small thing, Coakley adds that sometimes musicals tend to be overwritten to the point where you lose track of all the motifs and it becomes many parts and never the whole.
“This is not the case with their shows,” she says. “Like with Dear Evan Hansen, every song fits like a perfect piece in a musical puzzle.”
The co-directors were, of course, familiar with Pasek and Paul through shows like James and the Giant Peach (coming to Adventure Theatre MTC in February), Edges, and A Christmas Story, and both were impressed with all they accomplished at a young age. Neither, though, had ever seen Dogfight.
“We found out about Dogfight through various websites showcasing highlights of the cast recording. One viewing of the heart breaking song ‘Pretty Funny’ and we immediately wanted to know more about the show,” Coakley says. “We were ecstatic to discover that it had yet to be produced locally, and we jumped at the chance to introduce the story to DC audiences.”
Mark and Susan Marie Rhea (Keegan’s artistic director and associate artistic director, respectively) were immediately drawn to Dogfight because of its focus on characters dealing with complex emotions and themes.
Dogfight tells the story of Eddie Birdlace, a young marine who meets a girl named Rose the night before getting shipped off to the Vietnam War. The way he meets her—a last minute pickup for a party the marines refer to as a “dogfight”—is a bit unconventional. The rules for the “dogfight” are simple: each marine puts some money into the pot and the one who brings the ugliest date wins a fistful of cash. The setup is ugly and off-putting, but the payoff to the story is worth the heartache.
Keegan held an open casting call and were very impressed at those who came out for the auditions. One particular Keegan favorite, Susan Marie Rhea, is cast in the role of Mama, and will be making her musical theatre acting debut at Keegan. Another debut is Izzy Smelkison who plays Rose.
“You never know who is going to step in that audition room and who you might find. And did we get lucky with Izzy Smelkison. Izzy is a rising junior at American University and has truly been a remarkable individual to work with,” Innocenti says. “We are constantly amazed at her poise, grounded reality, and the ability to reveal all the qualities that make a part like Rose so complex and special. She laid it all out there in the audition room and was very directable, so it was really a gift that she came out for the part.”
Overall, it’s a very young cast, which both directors find fun and perhaps a bit intimidating.
August 22 – September 19
1742 Church Street, NW
Tickets: $35 – $45
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“Even though both of us are only in our late 20s and early 30s, their energy makes us feel like we need to down a six pack of Red Bull and bring walkers to rehearsals,” Coakley says. “Corralling that energy becomes a task in itself, but it’s a joy to watch and they are ready and willing to go with you where the story needs to be. The energy they have is really to our benefit when we run the same energetic dance number 12 times in a row. They just keep powering through and are still able to go to the clubs afterward while we are home and in bed.”
The co-directors have had little interaction with Pasek and Paul, who are currently working on their next creation, but don’t think that was very necessary.
“Their work is very straightforward and we wouldn’t think to impose with a barrage of questions,” Innocenti says. “We had a brief chat with Mr. Pasek when we got to see Dear Evan Hansen, and he was extremely welcoming. We were able to thank him and Mr. Paul for writing an extraordinary show that we are lucky enough to produce.”
While it isn’t Dear Evan Hansen, Keegan audiences who come to Dogfight will see something truly memorable.
“We hope that the audience walks away from this production with a stronger grasp on their own humanity,” Innocenti says. “Obstacles like Internet trolls, ‘defriending’ and devotion to our mobile devices prevents us from making connections and having interactions with people who see the world differently. Much like the themes in Dear Evan Hansen, it’s easy to forget our own compassion when the next simple delight is a finger swipe away.”