It has been an incredible few years for songwriting and composing duo, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. They are the team behind the latest Broadway smash, Dear Evan Hansen, and responsible for the lyrics of the Oscar award winning song, City of Stars, from the wonderful La La Land. That success is enough for us to take a first look at their 2012 musical, Dogfight, an adaptation of the 1991 film of the same name that starred the late River Phoenix.
The intimate Kentlands Mansion & Arts Barn is the venue for this Rockville Music Theatre’s production and the small stage features a low platform designed to resemble the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The show opens to the haunting melody of Take Me Back as we meet Eddie Birdlace (Eric Jones) and Rose Fenny (Megan Evans) after the events that are about to unfold. We are transported back in time and Jones is joined by the other two Bees, Boland (Garrett Zink) and Bernstein (Cam Sammartano) and the rest of the Marines for Some Kinda Time. Choreographer, Hayley North combines militaristic movement with a drinking buddy’s vibe that works extremely well (apart from one slightly awkward lift towards the end) to capture the naivety of these young men before they head off to war.
With the rules of the Dogfight explained (basically who can bring the ugliest date to the party) we are introduced to the full ensemble in Hey, Good Lookin’ and Music Director, Matthew Dohm, has the cast in fine voice. We transition to the diner where Eddie and Rose meet and Evans is at her best as the awkwardly introverted Rose in Nothing Short of Wonderful. The flow of Act One is a major achievement by Director, Dana Robinson. Scene changes are seamless and are aided by the excellent lighting design of Rick Swink. The movement on stage is slick and that is exemplified by the couples dancing in That Face where the small space is used to maximum effect.
The performances throughout the cast are strong, but a lack of subtlety is a consistent theme in the acting choices. Hillary Templeton gets all the laughs as Marcy but crosses the fine line into cliché and loses some of the tragic nature of the character required for the emotional duet with Evans in It’s A Dogfight. There is no doubting Evans’ sincerity with her performance of Pretty Funny and it is a heartfelt close to the first act but it lacks a rawness that could have meant not a dry eye in the house.
Act Two starts at the arcade with A Home Town Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade and unfortunately it’s a sloppy start vocally and some difficulty bringing on a doorway only adds to that sense. The threat of rape as Sammartano throws the prostitute to the ground doesn’t feel dark enough and that lack of gravity sits uncomfortably. As Eddie distances himself from the rest of the Marines to find Rose it’s a chance for Jones to explore the depth of his character underneath the bravado, especially when discussing his father, but it’s never quite the nuanced performance it could be.
With the platform representing the actual Golden Gate Bridge, at times in the second act, it’s difficult on such a small stage to not fall into the trap of some of the action seemingly taking place in the water. That’s the case as Eddie and Rose spend their night together and there is an uncomfortable moment as some of the ensemble enters the stage for Give Way and look like slightly creepy voyeurs as they hold hands awkwardly stage left. The stage is suddenly beautifully lit as Eddie dresses on the edge of Rose’s bed in silhouette as Boland and Bernstein lead the reprise of Some Kinda Time from the platform. The lighting change in the middle of that moment to bring the lower stage into the light is almost criminal.
As the Marines head off on duty a quick lighting change thrusts us into the middle of a Vietnam War Zone. It’s a jolt and a relatively effective one and the sound effects are well done but it feels like there is more that could have been done to attack the senses of the audience. The battle that follows feels a little over choreographed and the deaths lack a certain poignancy that we want to feel despite the flaws of these young men. Another quick lighting change and we’re back in San Francisco post war. Surrounded by protesters, Jones gives the vocal performance of the night in Come Back. It’s a powerful and emotional moment that sadly we are snapped out of with a simple “Hey Rose” delivered as if it was no surprise at all to bump into her in that vast city.
Despite never quite living up to the seriously impressive staging of the first act, and not getting truly next level performances out of her talented cast, this show is a success for Dana Robinson and RMT that is worth making the effort to see.
#tothepoint Rating: 64/100
You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.
Ticket Price: $22
Value Review: +$6