It pains me to write this review of Dogfight at the Keegan Theatre. I’ve been a Keegan patron for years and was happy to experience its newly renovated space for the first time (it debuted in June), a fine accomplishment in this scrappy little theater’s trajectory.
Add to that all of the enthusiastic ardor I’ve heard about the musical Dear Evan Hansen, currently playing at Arena Stage, the newest work from Dogfight composer/lyricist duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
But this one’s a bore. Based on a forgettable 1991 film of the same name with a problematic premise, Dogfight is a jumble of uninspired scenes, awkward interactions, cloying music, lackluster choreography, clichéd historical and cultural stereotypes and banal songs.
Yes, this show is the ugliest girl at the dance.
What dance? The titular dogfight—if the writers are to be believed—a “time-honored” tradition for U.S. Marines about to deploy overseas, wherein they compete in a pool to see who can show up with the ugliest date. The book by Peter Duchan closely hews to the 1991 film and follows three young Marines on an all-nighter in 1963 San Francisco before being shipped out to “this little country near India they call Vietnam.”
An uneven tone and a shower of bathetic cliché fundamentally mar the production. The Marines Birdlace (Tiziano D’Affuso), Boland (Harrison Smith) and Bernstein (David Landstrom) act the way musical-theater writers think military servicemen act, continually saluting, about-facing and parroting jacked-up, macho, mumbo-jumbo. The guys’ nasty, brutish attitudes—crystallized in a hushed, near gang rape scene—don’t meld at all with their unctuous, ingratiating song and dance personas in numbers like the melodic “Some Kind of Time” and the caustic “Hometown Hero’s Ticker-Tape Parade.”
The cartwheeling tone between goofiness and repulsiveness in Dogfight creates a mishmash effect. There are poignant and funny moments to be found however, including the “judging” dance near the end of Act 1, with its high-octane silliness accompanied by the retro stylings of lounge singer Chad Wheeler singing “That Face”; scene-stealer Dani Stoller’s shtick portrayal of a plucky street girl with a winning party trick; and Isabelle Smelkinson’s natural, understated performance as Rose, the sweet aspiring folk singer chosen by Birdlace for humiliation.
The hoorah jerkiness of the male leads darkens the bittersweet tenderness you’re supposed to feel for the eventual coming-of-age romance between Birdlace and Rose, but Smelkinson—an American University junior making her professional debut—manages to get some genuine humor and characterization in despite the uneven tone of the whole.
Smelkinson’s Rose is the one credibly written character in the piece. Her earnest, vulnerable performance is the sweet spot of the show, from her nervous yelps at the prospect of being asked by Birdlace to a party, to her insightful queries cutting through his adolescent male fog and her forthright challenges to his bluster.
August 22 – September 19
1742 Church Street, NW
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $45
Details and Tickets
The songs, orchestrated for a six-piece ensemble, are either of the dissonant, jarring type for group numbers or lightweight and conversational—in total a popular form in today’s currency and what could be called Sondheim-derivative, however utterly lacking the master’s bravado and intellectualism.
But Smelkinson and D’Affuso have lovely voices, which are highlighted in the show’s best songs: its introspective confessionals. Songs like Smelkinson’s hopeful “Nothing Short of Wonderful” and tenderly exposed “Pretty Funny” and D’Affuso’s heavy soliloquy, “Come Back,” give the young performers a chance to show their stuff.
Hope springs briefly during the leads’ clumsily sweet Act 2 duet “First Date, Last Night.” In the best written scenes in the show by far, their reconciliation begins awkwardly walking in silence and progresses through a very funny three-way with Chad Wheeler’s snooty restaurateur for a shared dinner and a song “Before It’s Over.”
The design elements were serviceable, with Colin Dieck’s lighting and Dan Deiter’s sound especially strong, as evidenced in an early scene spotlighting the returning veteran Birdlace on a train and in the surprisingly well-crafted battle effects.
Dogfight . Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Book by Peter Duchan . Directed by Christina A. Coakley and Michael Innocenti . Featuring Tiziano D’Affuso, Isabelle Smelkinson, Harrison Smith, David Landstrom, Dani Stoller, Chad Wheeler, Chani Wereley, Matt Hirsh, Ian Anthony Coleman, Ricky Drummond, Eben K. Logan and Susan Marie Rhea . Music director: Jake Null . Choreographer: Kurt Boehm . Set designer: Matthew Keenan . Costume designer: Jesse Shipley . Lighting designer: Colin Dieck . Sound designer: Dan Deiter . Hair and makeup designer: Craig Miller . Produced by The Keegan Theatre. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.