“Dogfight” at the SFPlayhouse is a “Musical Love Story,” the old-fashioned kind of American musical where boy meets girl, there is a crisis and then they re-meet and everything is perfect. But this has a twist and even though it is placed during the Vietnam wartime in 1963 it feels very modern.
The music is modern as well. The music and lyrics of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul come from the school of Steven Sondheim or even Leonard Bernstein with their bouncy syncopation, experimental harmonies and always clever lyricism. Even one of the characters is called Bernstein in homage to the great American composer for whose “West Side Story,” Sondheim wrote the lyrics.
The love story opens when 6 Marines have the night off in San Francisco before they report to duty and are sent off to Vietnam. They are ready to let loose, drink, womanize and paint the town red. In fact this is the same story, sort-of, of Bernstein’s “On the Town.”
The marines play “Dogfight,” a game where the guy who has a date with the ugliest girl wins the pot that they pool together. Eddie Birdface (Jeffery Brian Adams) is the character we follow closely. He is dour, feisty and ready for a fight. He’s also shy, sensitive and inexperienced, although he tries to disguise this.
Adams is the same character we recently saw in the SFPlayhouse production of Sondheim’s “Promises, Promises,” in which he starred as the blasé, uncaring, hard to catch cad. Maybe he is being type-caste, but it is to our advantage because Adams in these roles demonstrates one of the best voices and acting on the local musical stage today.
His character Eddie meets Rose Fenny (Caitlin Brooke) in her mother’s modest restaurant where she is a waitress. Rose fits the role as his date for she is overweight and awkward. Eddie invites her to the wild party with the others. Before going she is so excited and nervous that there is a whole scene in her tiny bedroom when she is trying to decide what to wear as she sings “Nothing Short of Wonderful,” one of the most Sondheim type songs in the play. Brooke too has a beautiful voice throughout and she creates a sympathetic character.
The excellent music runs through the entire two act show. There is a fine seven piece live band placed above the stage behind a screen. Michael Gene Sullivan sings to the party goers and encourages them to dance close. He and others in the cast play multiple roles from the time of the marines’ departure until the return during the height of the hippie era.
At the party Rose finds out about the cruel “Dogfight” game in which she unknowingly a contestant. She leaves heartbroken. Eddie comes to his senses in the second act after the real fight scene in Vietnam whose outcome I won’t reveal. This is a musical that is as funny as it is sad. It is similar to Paul Taylor’s famous ballet “Company B” where midst all the merriment, the World War II soldiers start disappearing one by one.
The rest of the cast is multi-talented in their acting, dancing and singing abilities. Marcy, (Amy Lizardo) wins the dogfight contest but Sally Dana and Kathryn Fox Hart are not far behind. The other Marines, Jordon Lee Bridges, Nikita Burshteyn, Brandon Dahlqvist and Andrew Humann, are equally effective in their roles.
And as for direction, again founding director of SFPlayhouse Bill English stars. He also designed the clever set with a large Golden Gate Bridge tower and images of San Francisco of like the Painted Lady Victorian houses, John’s Grill and Tommy’s Joynt. Tatiana Genser’s costumes, Steve Schoenbeck’s sound and David Lee Cuthbert’s lightings and projections make this a superb production.
But I have one big complaint. I don’t know why the SFPlayhouse decided to mike the singers. The theater is not that big, at least not like those barns of empty space on Market Street where the Best of Broadway plays run. The microphoning of singers in these monstrous theaters drive me insane as you can never tell from where the singing comes as it bounces off the walls.
SFPlayhouse is intimate enough and the singers are so well-trained that they do not need to be amplified. The chorus numbers become so deafening in the small space that I had to reach for my earplugs.
Otherwise, this is a wonderful production with a meaningful script, beautiful music and outstanding performance. “Dogfight” won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical plus many other honors.
“Dogfight” runs through November 7, 2015 at SFPlayhouse, 450 Post near Union Square, San Frfancisco. For info: 415-677-9596 or go online.
© Carol Benet 2015
Carol Benet is a regular theater reviewer for artssf.com.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly)focus on theater, dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into recordings by local artists, and a few departures into books (by authors of the region)as well.