Tuesday, July 17, 2012

REVIEW: Dogfight

Review of the Saturday evening, July 14, 2012 preview performance at the Tony Kiser Theatre at Second Stage Theatre.  Starring Lindsay Mendez, Derek Klena, Josh Segarra, Nick Blaemire, James Moye and Annaleigh Ashford.  A new musical.  Book by Peter Duchan.  Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.  Choreography by Christopher Gattelli.  Direction by Joe Mantello.  2 hours, 10 minutes, including an intermission.  Through August 19.

Grade: A+

I think that the best musicals are those that touch upon the human condition in ways that are both familiar and  unexpected.  The best ones transport you to another time - be it 1863, 1963 or yesterday - and they return you to reality a slightly different (better) person. The best of the best are emotionally bold and still subtle, and make you think and feel in ways you never did before about a subject.  

Such is the case, for me at least, with the new musical Dogfight which opened last night at Second Stage.  Having read about the story - Vietnam-era Marines on their last night before shipping out have a "dogfight," each putting $50 in pool and searching the city for the ugliest girl to bring to a dance.  The "winner" gets the cash and good hearty laugh as they show off their "masculinity" at the expense of the girls' feelings - I went in fully expecting to hate the guys and want to rush the stage to hug the girls.  And to that end, I was not disappointed, throughout the first act, I literally felt an ache of sympathy (and some empathy, too) in my chest and the pit of my stomach.  More than once I fought back tears - both on behalf of the girls and in shame for all men who are so heartless.  And it should be said that one of the more pleasant surprises of the entire first act, in retrospect, is that the writers - book by Peter Duchan, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul - let the situation and story inform your feelings, free of much in the way of overt manipulation.

But it was what I didn't expect that took me to places only a handful of musicals has done in the recent past. I never dreamed how much I would feel for those same nasty boys, so hellbent on asserting their masculinity in so selfish and so unforgivable ways.  I still refuse to ever accept the "boys will be boys" defense, and part of me wants to say that the really bad ones get what they deserve.  The truth is, in spite of myself, I felt, by the end, very badly for everyone involved.  Because, while Dogfight primarily ends up becoming a love story, it is even more about a loss of innocence that these characters and our country will probably never recover from. I'm sure that is why the show takes place so specifically on November 21, 1963.  The next day, the whole world as we Americans saw it will change forever. 

"Some Kinda Time"

"The 3 Bees": Berstein, Birdlace and Boland 

The Dogfight: Dierdre Friel, Nick Blaemire, Derek Klena,
Lindsay Mendez, Josh Segarra and Annaleigh Ashford

The night depicted in the show represents the last time these boys are boys, and will slip forever into a manhood they are not prepared for.  They cockily shrug off any notion of danger for where they are going, figuring what they will come up against they are trained for fully.  And they even more arrogantly spend their last night of freedom going through the typical rites of passage - getting laid, getting tattoos, drinking beer until they puke - and this particular despicable rite of passage, passed down from generations of United States "Sempre Fi, Do or Die" Marines, the dogfight.  You can almost buy their continual denial and excuses until you see the results in human terms.  The only girl who sees it for what it really is is a made up prostitute (the funny and tough Annaleigh Ashford), but even she slips up and lets us see the humiliation behind the steel veneer.  And despite everything - the lying cheat who you can't trust stateside and shouldn't trust in battle, the weak tool of a guy who feels he is entitled to lose his virginity even when a hooker tells him no, that same sense of entitlement covering weakness will make him an easy target on the battlefield - you can't help but feel a bit sorry for them both since they are really just blind fools headed into an impossible situation.  Those are those unexpected feelings that made act two as emotionally vital for me as the first act.

As a show, Dogfight works exceptionally well on all fronts.  The book is tight, with just the right amount of humor, pathos, and subtext to chew on while still being able to enjoy the main event.  Duchan fills in the holes and adds to the fabric of the piece when he brings in the themes of masculinity, brotherhood, sexism, sexuality and the like, making each contribute to, not take away from the whole.  He doesn't throw in everything he can think of; each moment, each beat has its place in making the whole a richer experience.

Rose and Eddie: Lindsay Mendez and Derek Klena

Pasek and Paul's score is a real achievement, as well.  The perfect combination of modern musical composition with nods to the past, and a nice dose of period-ish sounding numbers.  We never forget that we are in the 60's, but it pleases our modern ear as well. (I am working from memory and a little bit of YouTube-ing when I talk about a few of the songs that really stood out for me, as there is no song list in the Playbill.)  The big first number for the new Marines, "Some Kind of Time" is exuberant and youthful, a call to say "goodbye" to all the stuff of their childhood and say "hello" to a glory-filled manhood.  The song sounds very much of the sixties with its tight Four Seasons-ish harmonies, aided visually by Christopher Gattelli's athletic, boy group dance steps.  Another great group number is "Come to the Party" which centers on the lead characters finding each other and securing a date, but blossoms into a big company number.  What makes the number so especially good to me is that it goes down so easily, until you think about what it means.  The after taste is decidedly bitter.  Speaking of bitter, there is a funny/biting/scathing number called "Dogfight" in which the experienced prostitute explains how things really are to the disillusioned heroine of the piece.  (Annaleigh Ashford delivers this number with a ferocity reminiscent of Stritch belting out "The Ladies Who Lunch," a song to which "Dogfight" owes a bit of gratitude.)  The songs reserved for our leading lady, one in each act, are both heartbreaking and bittersweet.  "Pretty Funny," a painful response to the humiliation she has suffered at the end of act one, puts a nice finish to the half, letting us know she is down, innocence lost, but not out for the count.  In act two, the same painful and bittersweet feel comes in her number "Before It's Over," which allows for the possibility that all may not be lost, even if the toughest road lies ahead.  It is also the point in which we see this young woman become fully realized, and the same moment when it dawned on me that the same soldiers I found so rotten in act one, I was starting to care about, too, with their unfortunate demise all but spelled out before us.  Finally, the musical theatre lover in me was fully sated by the song team's ability to write "dialogue songs" on the level of their contemporaries, Yorkey and Kitt, and Adam Guettel, especially.  The bouncy, endlessly clever "First Date/Last Night" reminded me of both Floyd Collins and next to normal. (Michael Starobin is an orchestrating genius in making so few instruments sound so full and lush.)

Director Joe Mantello brings his typical style and flare to the show.  He is a master, really, at creating an easy flow that leaves the audience time to digest and think without ever bringing things to a grinding halt.  Here, he uses a revolve to literally and figuratively allow the characters to take a full walk, even in a tiny space, and he takes full advantage of set designer David Zinn's two level set to suggest expansive space and multiple places at once.  Paul Gallo's moody and unobtrusive lighting aides greatly in suggesting emotion as well as guiding the eye to where it needs to be.  His use of shadows and light give the whole piece a feeling of remembrance.  As I mentioned earlier, Gattelli's choreography is appropriately youthful and athletic.  But it also brilliantly foreshadows a much more serious set of moves - soldiers on patrol, in formation, gallantly marching toward their death.  That he uses similar moves in both acts is chilling and breathtaking.

The Company

It is interesting to note that the two best ensemble casts in New York musicals are a block apart on the same street.  Like the Tony-winning Once, Dogfight has an amazing group of actors who work so amazingly well as a unit.  I can't imagine this piece without these eleven very special people, each one contributing to the whole in such a way that even the smallest roles would be missed.  The ladies of the ensemble include Becca Ayers, who primarily plays Mama, a cautious but loving mother, Dierdre Friel, who brings a surprising emotional content to a briefly seen prostitute, and the aforementioned Annaleigh Ashford, whose main role is Marcy, a street-wise cookie who has been there, done that, but isn't nearly as tough as she thinks.  Ashford is a true asset and highlight of the show. James Moye plays a variety of roles as well, camouflaging himself well with very distinct characterizations - from the sincere war veteran, to the smarmy lounge singer, to the funny but uppity waiter at a posh restaurant.  Rounding out the small group of Marine buddies are Steven Booth, Adam Halpin and F. Michael Haynie, all of whom exude machismo and boyish carefree attitudes.  They also sing, dance and act wonderfully, creating whole characters without saying too much.

One last night for the Jarheads

Central to the Marines half of the story are the "3 B's", or as their tattoos show, "the 3 Bees."  Having seen all three of these actors in earlier roles, and admiring their work, I have to say I was surprised and thrilled to see their growth as actors and young men.  Nick Blaemire plays the bookish, weaker Jewish kid, Bernstein, with a wicked relish.  He is a ball of energy, slightly larger at all times than the rest, revealing his character's constant need not only for approval, but to show that despite his horn-rimmed glasses, whiny voice and weak appearance, he can keep up with the big boys.  Watching him transform, thanks to a few beers and a condom, into a sneering, self-entitled jerk is disquieting and well done on Blaemire's part.  Josh Segarra (a favorite of mine since Lysistrata Jones) really shows some major acting chops as the domineering bully of the group, Boland.  He manages beautifully to walk that very fine line that allows us to not despise him, and even like him a little bit, even though we know he can't ever be trusted.  It is that dynamic - a self-entitled weakling and a pompous, arrogant egomaniac - that makes the third "B" all the more interesting, and the tragedy that will tear all three apart all the more inevitable.

An awkward moment at the dogfight

The third "B" is Birdlace, the male lead of the piece, played brilliantly by Derek Klena, whose terrific work in Carrie in no way prepared me for this star-making turn.  I've said it many times, and it is just as true here, that the very best actors and performances are all done subtly and without excess.  Here, just about everything you need to know about Birdlace comes through the stiff, guarded way Klena holds himself (it must be exhausting after 2 plus hours), the shakes he gets when overcome by emotion, and finally, most excellently, through Klena's eyes.  In act one, they hold ever fleeting glances of boyish joy, but are mostly consumed by a haunting, distant gaze of defiance mixed with disappointment.  Such is the look of a boy fighting to be a man without a father to guide him.  That haunted gaze softens ever so slightly as he ultimately falls in love with his prey, and then, at the end, the gaze becomes a hardened glare as the scenes of violence witnessed play over and over in his head.  By the very end, only seeing his beloved cracks that hardness and the pain and anguish come pouring out of his tear-filled eyes.  What an amazing, fully-realized performance by an actor to watch for the future.  Bravo.

Finally, in the central role of Rose, a self-doubting, if serious young woman, Lindsay Mendez has finally made the leap from supporting actress to leading lady.  It may seem hyperbole to call it a tour-de-force performance given that she has gone out of her way to be understated and subtle, but it is what it is.  She has set a very high bar for every other leading lady coming up this season.  Like her co-star, she tells us every thing we need to know by her physicality - morphing from awkward spinster-to-be to a strong force of nature - and her deep soulful countenance.  Her eyes betray an inner belief in the romantic, despite being 20-something and never been kissed.  Later those same eyes reveal an inner strength that even she is surprised to find.  Ms. Mendez (and Mr. Klena) has a strong voice, soft and soulful and brash and belty.  I just love to hear her sing; she is one of those singers whose very fiber is the joy of music.

And I love to hear her sing with Mr. Klena.  In fact, I love them together.  They are perfectly cast.  I can't imagine this Dogfight without them, or any of the cast for that matter.  If there is any justice, they will be together for some time.

For more on Lindsay Mendez, click HERE.
For interviews with Derek Klena and Josh Segarra, click the "JKTS Chat: The Interviews" Tab at the top of the blog!

(Photos by Joan Marcus)

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