DOGFIGHTBook by Peter Duchan
Music and Lyrics by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul
Based on the Warner Bros. film with screenplay by Bob Comfort
Director -- Terry Martin
Musical Director – Mark Mullino
Choreography – John De Los Santos
Set Design – Michael Sullivan
Costume Design – Michael Robinson
Lighting Design – Jason Foster
Sound and Media Design – Scott Guenther
Properties Design – Gillian Salerno-Rebic
Eddie Birdlace – Zak Reynolds
Rose Fenny – Juliette Talley
Boland – Kyle Igneczi
Bernstein – Matt Ransdell, Jr.
Marcy/Ensemble – Beth Albright
Fector/Ensemble – Branden Loera
Gibbs/Ensemble – Matthew Silar
Stevens/Ensemble – Joseph Burnam
Mama/Ensemble – Stephanie Riggs
Ruth Two Bears/Ensemble – Aubrey Ferguson
Lounge singer/Ensemble – Steve Barcus
Piano – Mark Mullino
Bass – Tyler Hagen
Drums – Jay Majernik
Cello – Jordan Cleaver
Guitar – Dennis Langevin
Violin – Katrina Kratzer
Reviewed Performance: 7/26/2014
Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
All the way back to November 21st, 1963. Yep, the day before the world changing event in Dealey Plaza, although the specific date is only mentioned in passing reference to our hero’s upcoming birthday. In San Francisco, three Marine boot camp buddies are shipping out to Vietnam the next day. On a last night of debauchery, they decide to join in a game of “Dogfight”, in which the man with the ugliest date will win the money pool put up by the other Marines at the club. The cruel game backfires, mainly for our protagonist, Eddie, who eventually realizes that his date is more than just a means to winning a contest.
The young men expect this “Dogfight” to be just the kickoff to a brief time in some small country no one has heard off where the undefeated Americans can quickly clean things up and return to a hero’s ticker tape parade. We in the audience know differently, of course, and Eddie sings about that disillusionment and hard earned knowledge in his final song. “There is no before / Only now / They scoff / They spit / No parade / All you get is s**t / When you come back / … There’s a guilt that you can’t shake away / For coming back / Where do you go?”
Opening with a brief scene set in 1967, a more mature and emotionally wounded Eddie returns to San Francisco after four years as a Marine. In a flash, we are thrown back to 1963, and a terrific opening number, “Some Kinda Time,” gets the show off to a roaring start. The abrupt change in tone and presentation is sensational and works superbly, thanks to the performances of the actors and the energetic, athletic choreography by John De Los Santos. That kind of commitment, energy and forward momentum carries through the entire production. The final scene, or coda, takes us back to ’67.
The musical is based on the 1991 film of the same name starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor. The musical debuted June, 2012 at Second Stage Theatre, with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and book by Peter Duchan, receiving rave reviews for its young writers. It won the Lucille Lortel Outstanding Musical Award in 2013 and Outstanding Choreographer Award for Christopher Gattelli, along with nominations for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical, Outstanding Book of a Musical, Outstanding New Score, Outstanding Actress in a Musical and Outstanding Lighting Design from the Outer Critics Circle Awards. It also received Drama Desk and Drama League Award nominations.
Zak Reynolds, who plays Eddie Birdlace, opens the evening by showing us a serious and devastated young Marine who has been through hell. It’s evident in every muscle of his body, the vacant stare and the pathos he radiates. Actors are told to never play the ending of the story at the beginning, but in this case, it is the ending which haunts and looms over the production and Zak’s performance, even though it is unknown and unexpected by the characters. His lightning fast transformation in the opening number, from the morose vet of ’67 to the cocky, brash and highly charged young recruit of ’63 is breathtaking. It is a moment to be cherished. In spite of engaging in the misogynistic Dogfight contest and all the 1963 military bravado and machismo, Mr. Reynolds is never unlikeable. His gradual transition to a realization of his feelings for Rose doesn’t seem imposed by the script but rather Reynolds makes the transition organic and believable. He makes Eddie as filled with vulnerability as he is with being “Semper Fi, do or die!” Time after time he gives us a glimpse of the insecure struggling youngster under all the layered on John Wayne machismo. He also sings and dances like the best kind of leading man and his rendition of “Come Back” at the end of the show will tear your heart out.
Juliette Talley is Rose Fenny, his gradual object of affection. This is a role any young actress would fight for tooth and nail and Ms. Fenny takes it and fills it with layers and layers of character depth that make for a performance you will remember. Blessed with a strong and sure singing voice, Ms. Talley’s characterization shows us Rose as insecure and inexperienced, her movements rather geeky and unsure, only gaining confidence when she speaks of her music. In those moments, the actress gives glimpses of her character’s soul. Her excitement at being invited to a party by Eddie is absolutely believable and contagious. Talley’s “Nothing Short of Wonderful” number, as she tries to decide what dress to wear, holds the audience absolutely captivated and you can feel them becoming invested in her interpretation of Rose. “Just a girl, just a guy, but it’s him, and it’s you, / And it’s true what you’ve heard, like a bird, how you lift / …Like nothing short of wonderful.” When she is finally confronted with the cruel truth of the evening’s agenda, Ms. Talley crumbles before our eyes and it is devastating. The character gets her chance to vent her feelings to Eddie and the other Marines and Ms. Talley fills that moment with a strength and resolve that makes us want to applaud. The pain and anger she radiates as she says, “I hope you die over there! I hope you all die!” takes our breath away because the actress has earned the moment. Her final willingness to forgive Eddie and take him to her heart is carefully crafted by the actress to seem inevitable and right. She also gets all the best ballads in the show and she does each one full justice.
Kyle Igneczi and Matt Ransdell, Jr. are Boland and Bernstein, part of the “three B’s” that includes Eddie Birdlace. Igneczi absolutely inhabits and personifies Boland with the obnoxious, “but-you-can’t-help-but-like-him”, personality with which we’re all familiar. He floods the stage with masculine assurance, his every gesture screams “entitlement” and he simply IS the character. Mr. Igneczi is new to the Dallas scene, and the show biz gods willing, he will fast become a permanent and well-used member of the acting community. His is a talent that radiates from the stage and takes command while enhancing the performances of those around him. He gets one brief moment to show what’s beneath his character’s brash façade, and that’s all it takes to reveal layers.
Matt Ransdell, Jr., as Bernstein, manages to occupy and illuminate his stock, Jewish, buddy character with more inhibited close-to-the-body gestures, some unsure speech mannerisms and a physicalization that lets you see the naive, green young recruit determined to be everyone’s idea of the stereotypical Marine. Ransdell had a brief mike problem opening night that got fixed quickly when he had a chance to leave the stage. Thankfully so, because no one wanted to miss any of his wittily delivered dialogue or well-sung lyrics. Ransdell, like most of the actors in the show, gets a moment to show more than just a clichéd characterization. His scenes at the tattoo parlor and the whore house are a delight and a revelation.
Marcy, the woman of questionable morals Boland hires as his date for the party, is played by Beth Albright for all it’s worth! She takes the character by the teeth, fills her to the top with gesture, facial expressions, attitude and physical comedy, and shakes it ‘till there’s not a delicious morsel left un-portrayed. Hers is a wonderfully over-the-top performance that works without being too overbearing, and she steals every scene she’s in. Thankfully, Albright also gets a moment with Rose in the washroom to show another side of Marcy, takes it and breaks your heart, then just as quickly, her façade is back, and she’s off to the races again. It’s a delicious characterization and the audience can’t get enough.
Branden Loera, Matthew Silar and Joseph Burnam make up the male ensemble playing Marines and other characters, dancing and singing their hearts out and giving each character a distinct personality. Also part of the ensemble, Steve Barcus has a larger featured role as the Lounge Singer in the club where the “Dogfight” contest is staged. Using the typical hand and body moves and singing style of the lounge singers of the period, he adds greatly to the atmosphere and authenticity of the scene.
Stephanie Riggs is Mama to Rose and plays her part well without making it stereotypical. Aubrey Ferguson is hysterically funny as Ruth Two Bears, Bernstein’s date, without saying a word, and is also part of the terrific singing and dancing ensemble.
Indeed, one of the strengths of this production is the strong dancing, singing, and clear multi-characterizations of the ensemble. There isn’t a weak performer among them. Under the fine direction of Terry Martin, the scene in the club for the contest becomes a scene filled with individual stories, each fully developed and evident. Intentions are clear, the scene pops with that special spark all theatergoers hope to experience and we are transported. That’s what theater is about at its best. Martin keeps the momentum barreling along without sacrificing the kind of moments that make any good show worth watching. His staging and use of the multi-level set keeps the eye travelling and yet focused on what’s important. The opening of each scene grabs you and every new beat of the story is clear and precise. It’s a well crafted, fully professional and deeply felt production.
The set design by Michael Sullivan is yet another example of this fine designer’s work. It is vertical, urban looking, and filled with levels, a vaguely Mondrian-inspired set of paneled towers back illuminated in various colors. It works superbly for this fast-paced, multi-located show. The furniture and prop changes are unobtrusively handled quickly and efficiently. Helping establish locale, time and atmosphere are images projected on the scenery by Scott Guenther. Some of the images move across the scenery, some blink, some swirl, and some are stationary, but all are superbly chosen and made to amplify each moment in the production. Mr. Guenther also does the sound design for the show using ambient sound to good effect and keeping all at good listening levels.
Costumes by Michael Robinson are period appropriate, character defining, and work to expand our understanding of who these people are without drawing attention. He uses uniforms, a variety of perfect dresses for Rose to decide over, interesting period choices for the girls in the contest, a quick 1967 glimpse of hippie “flower power” and, oh, those red stockings on Marcy!
Lighting by Jason Foster keeps the action flowing from location to location, establishing mood and time and creating atmosphere with color and intensity, clearly showing us each moment. All come together in the battle scene in the second act - sound, lights, costumes - to transport us to a terrible event. Properties by Gillian Salerno-Rebic reflect both the period and occasion as appropriate to character and location.
Choreography by John De Los Santos deserves its own paragraph because without it this production would be less enjoyable and not nearly as powerful. The Marines dance like you think soldiers would dance if soldiers danced and sang about their feelings. Movements are strong, athletic, masculine and sure, often using some variation of military formation and routine. The number in the club for the “Dogfight” contest is choreographed with period dance moves but gives each actor, be it couple or individual, the right physicalization to reflect another aspect of their character. De Los Santos has taken a cast of various dancing abilities and created exciting and effective numbers.
The strong, action-filled and energy-driven first act makes the second act pale in comparison, but the quieter development of the relationship between Eddie and Rose, the Vietnam scene and other aspects kept me riveted. I found I cared about these characters, all of them, and was curious to see what developed. The ending, while predictable on some level, is still believable because of the two skilled lead performers.
Music Director Mark Mullino and his fine orchestra make the score exciting. The music is contemporary, much of it lovely, lyrics are conversational and used to further the action and expand characterization, and as my wife said, “Wasn’t it great to be able to understand the words to the songs because they were clearly articulated.”
This is an adult musical. Not just because of the R-rated language, including frequent “F bombs,” but also because it’s not stereotypical musical theater fluff but instead asks for some contemplation of deeper subjects. For those of us old enough to remember the Kennedy assassination (it took place on my wife and my first wedding anniversary) Vietnam and the public protests to that war, the musical recalls the ethical questions war raised and continues to raise today. “Mission accomplished!” indeed. Ironies abound moment after moment and song after song, as in “Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade”. Innocence and assurance, soon confronted by the harsh reality awaiting these young men, keep hitting home time after time. Hey, as Bernstein says, “We’ve had thirteen weeks of training, what can go wrong?”
There are so many fine things in WaterTower Theatre’s production to be enjoyed in retrospect including a sly Romeo and Juliet balcony moment overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Time after time, Director Martin and the designers and cast have taken this musical and crafted memorable theater moments playgoers owe it to themselves to experience. In its music, language, structure and subject matter, it’s a musical for today, worthy of its awards and nominations.
15650 Addison Road
Addison, TX 75001
Runs through August 17th
Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday at 8:00 pm, Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm. Additional performances on Saturday, August 9th and 16th at 2:00 pm.
Tickets are $29.00 Wednesday, $30.00 Thursday-Friday, and $40.00 Saturday-Sunday.
Saturday, Aug. 9th and 16th matinees are 425.00. Seniors and students receive a 43.00 discount Wednesday-Friday.
For tickets and information, go to www.watertowertheatre.org. call at 972-450-6232 or purchase at the box office (performance week hours are Tues.-Sat. noon to 6.00 pm – closed Sunday and Monday.)