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The superlative Lindsay Mendez leads an outstanding ensemble in this moving new musical based on the 1991 film about the unlikely romance between a young Marine and a peace-loving plain Jane in 1960s San Francisco. logo
Diedre Friel, Nick Blaemire, Derek Klena,
Lindsay Mendez, Josh Segarra,
Annaleigh Ashford, James Moye
in Dogfight
(© Joan Marcus)
Unlikely romances are the backbone of musical theater, which may be one reason bookwriter Peter Duchan and the songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were attracted to the little-known 1991 film Dogfight, which has been sharply transformed into a very fine musical, now getting its world premiere at Second Stage Theatre.

Indeed, thanks to the work of these committed artists, the sensitive contributions of Tony Award-winning director Joe Mantello and Tony-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli, and an outstanding ensemble cast led by the superlative Lindsay Mendez, the result is a surprisingly moving experience that, by and large, transcends its sometimes clichéd and predictable plot.

Set primarily on the all-too-symbolic date of November 21, 1963 -- but told in flashback from 1968 -- the show (which is fairly faithful to its source) is a dark-tinged variation on On The Town. Here, a group of young Marines headed to Japan (and eventually Vietnam) arrive for 24-hour leave in San Francisco, and ready for action (in every sense of the word.)

But instead of seeing the sights and looking for true love, tough-talking Eddie Birdlace (Derek Klena), cocky-as-can-be Boland (Josh Segarra, ideally cast), and nerdy, slightly nervous Bernstein (Nick Blaemire in a pitch-perfect turn) and their pals (Steven Booth, Adam Halpin, and F. Michael Haynie) have one mission: to find the ugliest girl they can find to bring to that evening's "Dogfight," a party where the winner gets a cash prize and bragging rights.

Eddie eventually stumbles upon Rose (Mendez), a waitress working in her mother's coffee shop (one of the many locales embodied on David Zinn's rotating set). She's more of a plain Jane than really unattractive, and Eddie has second thoughts about taking her to the dance, especially after she dolls herself up. But he goes through with the plan, which backfires spectacularly after Boland's date -- a tough-talking hooker he's hired named Marcy (Annaleigh Ashford in scene-stealing performance) -- spills the beans to Rose in the ladies' room.

Birdlace, who swears profusely, seemingly lives by the Marine code of "Semper Fi, Do or Die," and probably has little schooling, seems to have little in common with Rose, an aspiring songwriter who worships Woody Guthrie and Odetta, and is smarter than one might initially imagine. Yet, the pair -- perhaps because of (as we learn) similarities in both their backgrounds and their hearts -- are strangely connected. Their sweet, sometimes funny, and often awkward night together forms the basis for act two, which concludes with a brief during-wartime sequence and heartbreaking coda that (almost too-shockingly) alter the tone of the musical.

Mantello's signature gift for cutting through to the emotional truth of each scene is heavily on display here, especially in the second act and in the scenes between the three young Marines. For his part, Gattelli eschews the flashy choreography of Newsies to create movement in keeping with the needs of the show, whether it's the military-inspired dances that accompany such songs as "Hometown Hero's Ticker Tape Parade" or the soft, slow ones during the Dogfight set to the period-appropriate "That Face" and "It's Just a Party" (both nicely crooned by James Moye).

Paul and Pasek do well by their pastiche numbers, especially the folk-era-sounding "Take Me Back" and the gorgeous "Give Way," the song Rose supposedly writes. Better still are their contemporary-sound character numbers for Rose and Birdlace, "First Date/Late Night," "Nothing Short of Wonderful," "Pretty Funny," and "Before It's Over," even if one sometimes wishes these songs didn't quite sound so much like they were written by Jason Robert Brown for The Last Five Years (which will be produced next year by Second Stage).

Ultimately, though, none of this would be quite so affecting without the work of Klena, who keeps us engaged with Birdlace even in his most despicable moments, and especially Mendez, blessed with a glorious voice and an unerring instinct for veracity that combines for a truly star-making performance. Without question, this winning actress is the real victor in this Dogfight.

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