Dogfight - Great Creative, Talented Cast, Blah Show

You know those films that are packed to the brim with big-name talent behind of and in front of the cameras, but go on to be underwhelming anyways? You know, something like Oceans Twelve

Unfortunately, my reaction to Dogfight, now open at Second Stage Theater, echoes my reaction to that movie. You would think a creative team consisting of Joe Mantello’s direction, Christopher Gattelli’s choreography, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s music and a cast including so many young, talented names of theater would be a knockout and filled with awesome for days. Even if the show is not other-worldly amazing, it should be kind of good at the minimum, right?! Right?!

Imagine my dismay when I left the theater feeling disappointed and trying to sort out where things went wrong. I really wanted this show to be wonderful and break the trend of uninspired movie adaptations and/or lackluster 60's-set musicals that we have endured for some time now.

It doesn't bother me that the source of inspiration was a hardly-seen film released in the early-90's (which I actually watched in film class almost 8 years ago). It was such an unconventional choice, I applauded it actually. The show's premise – a group of marines engaging in a "who can find the ugliest girl" a.k.a the “Dogfight” contest, where one of them begins falling for his miscreant the evening before departing to Vietnam - doesn't scream "musical." The concept was more sound and thoughtful then the standard musical-faire.

And the whole package was working for a little while. The first big number, “Some Kinda Time,” set the bar high as we are introduced to the men in question - Eddie "Birdlace," Bernstein and Boland. I can only describe it as an energetic, army anthem medley, where the men are hopped up on adrenaline as they prepare to hit the town before their big send-off. Gattelli's choreography is stellar here and the song perfectly captures the early 60's pre-war, nostalgia. When they are singing about knocking some drinks back and beating some ass overseas, I wanted to be right there with them...which says a lot because (1) I do not drink and (2) I am a pacifist.

Unfortunately, it is the introduction of Eddie's kind-of love interest, Rose, where thing begin to stumble. Remember, the hook of the story is that these two find the other appealing (unconditionally) despite the obvious contrast in looks and personality. All well and good, but Derek Klena’s Eddie and Lindsay Mendez’s Rose are given far too much time to walk around on a revolving stage, bicker, passively sing and be awkward. Which brings me to my next point...

Yes, they are awkward. The actual "dogfight" scene? Occasionally amusing, but awkward to the point of unbearability. That's the point...this "couple" is intentionally awkward, the show is intentionally awkward and the audience, unanimously I'm sure, gets that impression. You know what the show no longer is? Enjoyable to watch. Kudos for evoking strong feelings, but the show shoots itself in its own foot by being way too heavy-handed (The guys are a-holes...we get it, enough already). All of this would be fine, welcome even, if there was a payoff or a moment of catharsis to justify these events...but neither ends up happening. The run-through and resolution to Eddie and Rose’s storyline is meandering and mostly boring. It may have been the crux of the show, but I was far more intrigued by the marine-aspect and the “last hoorah” before being shipped off instead, especially because that portion was handled so well.

Not helping the fact is that Eddie is written way too thin, leaving Klena floundering. His character basically trots along relatively unmoved only to have a temporal outburst every now and then. Klena's voice is super strong though and his final ballad - a harrowing depiction of a soldier confused and lost (and properly conveying anti-war sentiment in the late-60's) - is a real knockout and one of the most transcendent moments in the show.

Mendez is a bit of a different story. I am not one to make a big deal over her casting because this is the theater, where 34-35 year olds play 13-year-olds and high school students (and if you are Celia Keenan-Bolger, you are quite good a that). But Rose is made out to be this unattractive, fat girl, something we are reminded of over and over again, which happens to be two things that Mendez is not. At one point, she is even adorned with the Tracy Turnblad button-down blouse, plaid skirt and Jackie Onassis hair. Holy unsubtle, Batman...bar none, that was one of the most awful costuming decisions I have ever seen.

But that is not really a big issue, moreso an inescapable observation. The bigger story is, like Klena, Mendez’s talents seem mostly underutilized. Her belting can probably kill someone with its brute force, yet most of her songs are these cute, sweet gems o' nothing (I can't even remember what she was singing about in her final solo). On the one hand, considering her last two outings were Godspell and 35 Millimeter, it was an interesting choice to see her restrained and singing in a more conventionally pretty style (something she obviously can do without breaking a sweat). On the other hand, given how boring her character and storyline is otherwise, I think we're all not-so-secretly wishing for her to blast the roof off the place. Like I mentioned before, a cathartic release never really comes for her and the gal is capable of doing so much more.

Even though the supporting ensemble, like its two leads, is bizarrely underutilized (I don’t understand how that happened either), Annaleigh Ashford and Nick Blaemire are churning out the show’s two best performances. The former is practically unrecognizable and makes the most of Marcy, a toothless hooker that Boland (Josh Segarra) enters in the Dogfight. When Marcy and Rose are singing in the women’s bathroom – a sort-of “That’s The Way Life is” number regarding the Dogfight – you realize that Ashford is more vocally commanding and on-point.

The same can be said for Blaemire’s Bernstein, who commands your attention from the moment he takes the stage. I would tell you to keep an eye on him and his amazing dancing in the opener, but he takes care of that for you. He has this fluidity that meshes well with the choreography and is impossible to ignore. He also gets one of the most beautifully subtle moments in the show, when Bernstein lets his guard down (while getting tattoos with Boland, natch) to reveal his uncertainty and naiveté towards heading overseas. It was more memorable then it should be, probably because it one of the least emotionally manipulative or obvious moments.

Dogfight has its highlights and came close to being adequate. But thinking about the cast and crew now, I can’t shake the feeling that every aspect was reigned in to accommodate everybody and everything else. Gattelli’s choreography is pretty-great…when we see signs of his work, like, two or three times. Klena is wonderful when he is big-singing…that one time that happens. Mendez, Blaemire and co. have some good moments…one or two  of them apiece. All these elements and talents, and the show has no idea how to make use of all of them or even divvy up the show’s time. The result? A whole lot of nothing as the show does not add up to the sum of its parts.

Yes, there are worse shows and even greater disappointments out right now. I am not saying I loathed Dogfight, because I did not. I hate that I did not love or even like it. I hate that I can’t say, “Well, look at the talent attached to the show. Of course it delivered.” Leaving the theater, more hung up on the flaws then the show’s highlights, was not what I had in mind and now, all I can do is look forward to each cast and creative member’s next project…and hope their talents are not marginalized for some inexplicable reason.

Photo Credits: The Hartman Group PR

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