Monday, June 11, 2018

Machismo at the outbreak of America's worst war: Eclipse produces the jarring jarhead musical 'Dogfight,' a love story

A mean exercise suggesting the degree to which testosterone poisoning influences male bonding (and
Culture wars foreshadowed: folkie Rose gets acquainted with Eddie.
degrades women) grips the first act of "Dogfight," the period musical now being presented by Eclipse, the alumni outgrowth of Summer Stock Stage, at the IndyFringe Theatre.

The setting is San Francisco in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy is sending marines over to Vietnam as "advisors." Peter Duchan's book, with songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, throws at the audience  six rough-and-ready jarheads (a fighting word they're proud to reserve for themselves) preparing for a last night out stateside with pickup dates.

The show's title has a double meaning, to explain which would put me into spoiler territory. It's important that the audience only become aware what's really going on just before Rose, a naive but politically sensitive waitress sweet-talked into a date by Eddie Birdlace, catches on. This couple, sweetly and searingly played by Leela Rothenberg and Patrick Dinnsen, as seen Sunday afternoon, set themselves apart with difficulty from the coarse game the marines have cooked up.

Emily Ristine Holloway directs "Dogfight" with an initial emphasis on the foul-mouthed warriors'
The jarheads demonstrate their readiness for what's to come.
wild vigor,  leavened by a sympathy for the young marines' plight that the creators foreshadow in the show's prelude. Through his heart-driven lingering with Rose, Birdlace misses out on a tattoo covenant he's entered into with buddies Boland (Joey Mervis) and Bernstein (John Collins) that will depict them as the three B's (bees). This comes to have symbolic import as the suddenly flaring war, represented by a chaotic skirmish stunningly depicted in the second act, sifts out survivor from sacrificed.

Brimming with "Semper Fi!" spirit, the half-dozen macho marines are filled out in this production by Terrence Lambert, Isiah Moore and Matthew Conwell. Early in the show, they rock deep into the audience's collective sensorium with "Some Kinda Time" and "Come to a Party," accompanied by a briskly effective band led by Nathan Perry. The choreography they inhabit so completely is the work of Lily Wessel, with Cherri Jaffee.

Marcy (Elizabeth Hutson) knows when a party is not just a party.
Elizabeth Hutson penetratingly plays the hard-bitten Marcy,  who puts Rose wise to the marines' scheme in the title song. The bitter duet sets up impressively the final number of Act 1, Rose's doleful "Pretty Funny," with the band's violin and cello getting a welcome showcase. Elsewhere, despite the properly gauged face microphones, the instrumental accompaniment was sometimes too loud for the singers' words to come through, chiefly in "Dogfight" and the marines' ironic fantasy, "Hometown Hero's Ticker Tape Parade."

Though the performance level remained high, the show itself suffered a falling-off in inspiration after the crucial duet of Rose and Birdlace following "Ticker Tape Parade." "First Date/Last Night" seems to me "Dogfight"'s best song, and it was beautifully staged. It's one of those love songs that apply a skeptical or distancing twist to the powerful sentiments expressed.

It comes from a strong tradition, represented less starkly in older musical theater by "Almost Like Being in Love" ("Brigadoon"), "People Will Say We're in Love" ("Oklahoma!") and "If I Loved You" ("Carousel"). Stephen Sondheim twisted the ambivalence somewhat tighter in such songs as "Barcelona" and "Send In the Clowns," where the negative sides of love compete with the magnetic force of the attraction.

Melodically and verbally, "First Date/Last Night" has a Sondheimesque flair and tartness, and it comes at just the right time to give "Dogfight" its distinction. Maybe it's just the excellence of this song that made the remainder seem like filling out a love-vs.-war formula. Even so, it's a formula invested here with quite a bit of sentimental strength, as well as unflagging commitment.

[Photos by Michael Camp]