“The ugliest girl wins the dough for the guy who brought her.” THE DOGFIGHT IS SEMPER FI TRADITION, WITH A GREAT CAST AND ROUSING LOVE STORY.
San Francisco is back to 1963 at the San Francisco Playhouse, and opens season 13 with the pre Viet War DOGFIGHT. The coming-of-age story is based on the 1991 film featuring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor. Artistic director, Bill English has assembled a talented cast to open his new season. The 2012 musical take of the film has a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and book by Peter Duchan. Director English says “I have been fascinated by DOGFIGHT since seeing the film 20 years ago. (I) wonder why I would want to represent this heinous practice in our theatre. We present DOGFIGHT precisely because its circumstances are grim, and our protagonist so seemingly beyond hope - we discover in the ugliest worlds, in the bloodiest ring, the seeds of compassion and empathy that, when nurtured, can grow.” English is committed to celebrate the human spirit and his theatre company comes of age at 13, with an inspiring new work.
The opening number “Some Kinda Time” is excellent as the boys ready to celebrate their final night in SF before deployment and shipping out the next morning to a war nobody will win. The Marines played by a talented group of young players include lead Jeffrey Brian Adams, as a U.S. Marine with more compassion than his partners. Adams makes this part believable as he is teamed with the girl Rose, he takes to the DOGFIGHT, played so well by Caitlin Brooke. Rose is a SF waitress and low end folk singer who outsmarts a group of Sempher Fi boys including private Eddie Birdlace. The six boys make a bet (the Dogfight is a long standing tradition in the U.S. Marines) to bring the ugliest date to the party, and winner takes all. Maybe a bit predictable at heart, Eddie falls for his date and the novella stands strong.
The story is enduring and at times uncomfortable, during the song “That Face” the Marines take the question of gender and good looks to an emotional fun journey. Andrew Humann plays Bernstein, and Brandon Dahlquist as Boland, they are powerful and sweet “We Three Bees” is their anthem. The talented Nikita Burshteyn, Jordon Lee Bridges (who was seen as Birdlace in the OMG production of Dogfight), Aejay Michell, and Andy Rotchadl, fill the young male cast. Michael Gene Sullivan plays the adult male roles including the lounge singer, and at times he is in drag. On that topic, the script does call for one of the main male ensemble to cross dress for the DOGFIGHT party, and that always makes gender subtext in the theme of the story.
The girls are all terrific, and set up in the perfect wigs designed by Tabbitha McBride. The talented Amy Lizardo, plays Marcy a prostitute that is the perfect fit for the DOGFIGHT party, Lizardo and Brooke are a blast in the song “Dogfight”. Sally Dana plays Roses mother and adds precaution when she consoles Rose after the Dogfight. Kathryn Fox Hart, and Cella Jones fill out the other female roles, including Jordan Bridges who is perfect, in one of costume designer Tatjana Genser wonderful dresses.
Impressive are the Marine production numbers choreographed by Keith Pinto, rousing songs that could make the SF Playhouse audience stand and salute the boys. An issue with the book is an attempt to make these rascals sympathetic, since for the most part they are playing bullies and asswipes to women. But writer Duchan does manage to pull that off, soldiers behaving like jerks, to have some honor as they ship off to a dark window in their lives.
The real hope and star of this story is Rose, who at times towers over her leading man, the designers made sure to keep her in flats. Brookes wonderful voice fills the SF Playhouse. We see her build strength and confidence during the two hours on stage. As Eddie falls for his date, as he loses hope for what he sees is his future. A highlight is the dinner scene in the second Act when Rose challenges Eddy as who could be more foul mouthed - Her comic timing is perfect and we get a glimpse of their emotional journey in the song “First Date, Last Night”.
The direction is touching and English also designed the wonderful two level set based on the Golden Gate. He has turntable to wisk in his players from scene to scene that is very clever and makes those walks through SF charming. The projections on the set designed by Lighting master David Lee Cuthbert, tone the San Francisco atmosphere and bring back that 60’s feel. The frame of the story is a flashback as Eddie returns to San Francisco, and the sound design by Steve Schoenbeck is on que with SF sounds of the bay and warf. Music director Ben Price, and his six member orchestra are perched above the set and are rich with the pop score and ballads. Price has all his company on pitch and his songs from duets to anthems are impressive.
It is a sweet score filled with exciting numbers. At times it can be a little more sympathetic in the second act, and runs out of steam, but the cast does not lose its charm and heart. Love blooms as the two leads take the story to the end. The show has a quiet ending that might want you to ask for more or at least another rousing number. DOGFIGHT is a sweet story about love and war. A musical journey that is alluring from beginning to end. It is a sure bet for a love story that might be a bit predictable but a must see. It runs through November 7th at the lovely San Francisco Playhouse. (listen to clip from show below)
The San Francisco Playhouse Presents
A Musical Love Story
Music & Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Book by Peter Duchan
Directed by Bill English
Music Direction by Ben Prince
Choreographer Keith Pinto
San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., S.F.
Sept 22 to Nov. 7
Tickets: $20 to $120
(415) 677-9596, tickets at >> www.sfplayhouse.org
Photo’s by Jessica Palopoli.