"The Heirs of Rogers and Hammerstein" is what Vanity Fair dubbed composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose musical Dogfight is now playing at SpeakEasy Stage, where it will run until June 4. Although it feels like a premature coronation, there is a lot to celebrate about these two young composers.
Pasek and Paul were barely midway through their 20s when they wrote Dogfight, which premiered in 2012 off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre. The pair received their first Tony nomination later that year for their acclaimed adaptation of A Christmas Story, and their latest musical, Dear Evan Hansen, recently opened off-Broadway to rave reviews.
While there is an old-fashioned craft and an impressive Golden Age sensibility present in Dogfight, there is still a pervading sense of juvenility that cannot be shaken off.
Based on the 1991 film of the same name, the show opens in 1967 with Eddie Birdlace (an impressive Jordan J. Ford), just back from Vietnam and on a bus bound for San Francisco. Traumatized by his experiences overseas, he is hardly able to respond to the man sitting next to him. Memories are jogged, and suddenly Birdlace is transported four years back with his two best friends, Boland and Bernstein (Jared Troilo and Drew Arisco), a trio of carefree jarheads trying to live it up before their deployment. It is November 21, 1963 – the eve of Kennedy's assassination. Carrying out a longstanding marine tradition of "dogfighting," the platoon pools their money to rent out a hall and throw a party. Each of the guys must go off in search of a "dog" — the ugliest girl he can find — and bring her to the party as his date; the winner gets the cash.
Birdlace comes across Rose (Alejandra M. Parrilla), a young, overweight, shy waitress (who also happens to be an aspiring folk singer). He invites her to the party, and after some convincing, she accepts. When he picks her up to head off to the party, he begins to second-guess his intentions. Rose is everything that Birdlace isn't used to: She is genuine and endearing, an honest-to-goodness breath of fresh air.
Completely unaware of the party's purpose, Rose has a wonderful time. Boland ends up winning the prize money, though, thanks to Marcy (a showstopping McCaela Donovan), a prostitute that he has hired to look extra ugly for the occasion. When Marcy, a tipsy loose canon, tells Rose about the dogfight in the ladies room, Rose storms out, devastated.
The trouble is, Birdlace actually began to feel something for Rose. The show really finds its heart in the second act when he pursues her and their romance takes off. Vietnam, of course, continues to loom over everything. Rose brings out the best in Birdlace, and his final night of freedom is spent in her bed. The next day, he will be gone.
There is a mournful ache throughout this musical, awakened especially each time we remember what these young, carefree boys are about to walk into. The dramatic irony, of course, is that they are completely unaware. Watching the clock count down on their innocence is crushing. For a handful of hours in Rose's bed, Birdlace is still a boy. But when the sun comes up on November 22, he'll cross a threshold and head into the fight of his life. Dogfight succeeds in its simplest moments, and despite the brutish cruelty of the young marines, it is a simple and tender love story.
As Birdlace, Ford gives a subtle, layered, and deeply emotional performance. His transition from innocent boy next door to hardened war veteran is a marvel. He demonstrates remarkable control over his effortless voice, and his performance of "Come Back" is the show's musical strong point. Parrilla brings an assured naïveté to Rose, a simple girl who may not have much confidence, but who is well aware of her worth. She is better in Rose's most docile, vulnerable moments.
The ubiquitous Patrick Varner is first-rate. He plays at least seven different characters, all of them thoughtfully etched. Troilo, one of the finest actors in Boston, brings polish and oomph to this production. His stage presence is unmatched, and he infuses some much-needed confidence into every scene he's in.
But it is the sublime Donovan who makes the most enduring impression. She plays a few different characters, chief among them Marcy, the prostitute, who lets it slip to Rose about the dogfight. From her first entrance, with a cigarette in hand and a tragic beehive hairdo, it is clear that this is Donovan's stage. Even when she speaks no lines or stand off to the side, it is impossible not to watch her. Her absence from Act 2 is its own kind of tragedy.
Directed by Paul Daigneault, the musical runs like a sharp, well-oiled machine. Pasek and Paul's score is respectable, despite being mostly forgettable and laced with the influences of composers and lyricists such as Stephen Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown. It is truly the work of two young, new composers who are still finding their way.
The creative team is top-shelf: Peter Duchan crafts an intelligent and strong book, and the production looks and sounds terrific. Music director José Delgado has put together a four-piece band that sounds doubly large. Larry Sousa's muscular, jivey choreography and well-planned musical staging is an asset; it is nice to see a musical of this sort that is not over-choreographed. Set designer Cristina Todesco's work is sparse but effective. Elisabetta Polito's costumes are spot-on, and Jeff Adelberg's lighting makes this production look vibrant and electric.
While Dogfight hints at the talent of what's to come with Pasek and Paul, there's still an amateur quality to this production that is seldom, if ever, seen with SpeakEasy. It's not entirely the creators' fault; the young cast, while talented, lack the confidence and professionalism that needs to be developed a bit more as they find their footing onstage. The one major exception to this is Donovan, whose teetering around the stage while looking like Amy Winehouse by way of Jackie O, is very near worth the price of admission on her own. Although her stage time is brief, Donovan elevates Dogfight to higher ground, somewhere very near musical-theater heaven.