Entertainment

Harmonies take the ugly out of ‘Dogfight’

Harmonies stand out in ‘Dogfight,” a testosterone-drenched musical that has surprising poignancy. Underneath the soldier-boy bravado, there is a moment in time that encapsulates the 1960s, and lessons learned about love when we face our futures.

Under Justin Been’s smooth direction, a small ensemble depicts a life-changing evening for tough-talking Marine Eddie Birdlace (Brendan Ochs) and Rose (Shannon Cothran), the shy girl he meets in a diner. The story is told in flashback as he rides a Greyhound bus home four years later.

It is Nov. 21, 1963, a night before ideals would be shattered and innocence lost. Eddie and his swaggering pals Boland (Luke Steingruby) and Bernstein (Kevin O’Brien) plan a night of debauchery in San Francisco before they are deployed to Vietnam.

Their energy, as well as the ebullient fellow Marines, is evident in robust numbers, “Some Kinda Time,” “We Three Bees,” and “Hey, Good Lookin’” which sets the stage for the show’s abundant macho carousing.

They take part in a cruel game called Dogfight, in which each guy brings a date to a party, judging the ugliest girl, and the winning guy collects a pot of money.

Yes, it’s as awful as it sounds. The story is based on the 1991 movie starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor. Unscrupulous Boland schemes to split the winnings with a toothless prostitute, Marcy (Sara Rae Womack), who divulges the game to Rose in the bathroom.

A hurt Ruth publicly admonishes Eddie and company. In the second act, he attempts to make amends, takes her out to dinner, and gets to know this smart girl, tougher than she appears and wise beyond her years. She might be socially awkward, but has a social conscience, and loses herself in music as a singer-songwriter, guitar at the ready.

Their tender duet “First Date, Last Night” is a highlight.

In a memorable local debut, Cothran excels as the wallflower Rose, who blooms during the show. Her “Pretty Funny,” conveying Rose’s devastation at being humiliated, is heartbreaking. She gives the show an emotional center sorely needed with all the male posturing. On opening night, Ochs became stronger in characterization as the story progressed.

Jenni Ryan and Jason Meyers effectively handle adult roles, with Meyers a hoot as a snooty maitre d’. Steingruby displays his glorious, clear voice, and Melanie Kozak, of Swansea, has a few sweet solo vocals during ensemble numbers.

Sara Rae Womack is miscast as the skanky hooker, appearing more like a sorority girl in the party scene, and upstaging major characters a couple times. Likewise, Kevin O’Brien, a competent singer and actor, does not entirely fit the role of the blustery, Jewish Bernstein, more innocent than he appears, although he works well with Ochs and Steingruby as a trio.

The Three B’s have a palpable chemistry as a band of brothers leaning on each other. “Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade” brings the harsh reality of war to the surface.

The cast’s vocal harmonies are exceptional, with “Give Way” very moving as they solemnly walk with candles.

Music Director Chris Petersen superbly leads a tight, crisp six-piece band, with a cello and violin evoking emotional tugs. Choreographer Zach Stefaniak has created snappy movement on that small stage.

Scenic designer Rob Lippert has built an impressive two-tier set where action moves fluidly, and has distinguished the various settings well. He has economically used lighting and signs to convey bus station, tattoo parlor and other locales. A nice touch is a small Golden Gate Bridge replica close to the night sky.

Tyler Duenow’s expert lighting design always enhances Stray Dog’s productions, and the costume design by artistic director Gary F. Bell effectively recalls 1963 — and the subsequent cultural revolution in 1967.

“Dogfight” premiered off-Broadway in 2012, notable for its tuneful music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Tony nominated for “A Christmas Story, the Musical”). This fall its local debut is on two stages — at both Stray Dog and Webster Conservatory.

While there are some clunky parts in the book by Peter Duchan, and far too much profanity, the messages regarding coming of age and compassion are expressed well in this production.

"Dogfight"

  • Where: Stray Dog Theatre
  • When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays through Oct. 24; special performances at 8 p.m. Oct. 14 and 2 p.m. Oct. 24
  • Where: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis
  • Tickets: www.straydogtheatre.org; 314-865-1995
  • For mature audiences
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