Consider the following story: A bunch of fresh Marine boot-camp graduates, on their last liberty before shipping overseas, decide to hold a “dogfight”: a competition of who can bring the ugliest date to a bar, and hopefully, go to bed with her. Along the way to the bar, they joke between each other about the best way to get the women drunk so they can have their way.
In today’s eyes, this would be abhorrent. Today, we’ve become sensitized to abuse and coercion. We (hopefully) have come to learn that consent and respect are the way to go.
It wasn’t always so. Back in the early 1960s, the attitude was very different. Look no further than Bill Cosby for evidence of this: Early 1960s mores saw nothing wrong with drugging women to get them to bed.
Perhaps this is one reason the first act of Dogfight, a recent Off-Broadway musical in its Los Angeles and Orange County premiere at the Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim, is so uncomfortable. Dogfight, with book by Peter Duchan (FB) and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek (FB) and Justin Paul (based on the 1991 movie Dogfight written by Bob Comfort and directed by Nancy Savoca), tells the story of Eddie Birdlace, a young Marine just out of bootcamp in 1963. Birdlace is about to ship out to Vietnam with his buddies for a year of being an advisor and isn’t worried at all. After all, the Marines have trained him for this, and what could be worse than boot camp.
The first act of the musical focuses on the titular “dogfight”. The Marines are going to “Frisco” (yes, that’s what they call it) for a night on the town before they ship out to Okinawa. The group includes “the three Bees” — three recruits who have become close friends during boot camp thanks to alphabetic and size proximity: Birdlace, Boland, and Bernstein, as well as three other Marines — Fector, Stevens, and Gibbs. They want to get laid, they want to win the dogfight, and they want some fun before they leave. They all work to find the ugliest girl and bring them to a dance at a bar where they will get them drunk before the girls are judged. Eddie finds his dog working in a local diner: Rose Fenny, a young girl into folk music, working for her mother as a waitress, who has no experience with boys, men, and especially Marines. He asks her to come to a party that evening by feigning interest in folk music. She’s not interested, but he keeps pursuing her, and she eventually relents. Boland finds his by recruiting Marcy, a toothless prostitute. Bernstein ends up with Ruth Two-Bears, a Native American woman, and the others find equally odd-ball choices. When Birdlace picks up Rose, he sees how much this party means to her and how innocent she is. Later, at the party, Birdlace sees how the women are being encouraged to overdrink, and how they are being treated, and tries to convince Rose to leave before the “dance”. She refuses: she came for a party, and she wants a party. So the judging dance begins, and Rose and Eddie are about to win… but Marcy removes her teeth, and… we have a winner (note that the girls, other than Marcy, are oblivious to the competition). Rose goes to the bathroom, sick from too much alcohol. There she meets Marcy where she learns the truth about the competition, and about Marcy and her relationship with Boland. She comes out, slaps Eddie, and tells him she wishes he and his friends would die overseas, and heads home to cry in her bed.
Thus ends the first act. At this point, we were really unsure about this musical. We didn’t like its attitude towards women. We didn’t like some of the stereotypical portrayals (I was particularly bothered by Ruth Two-Bears, which had the stereotypical “Indian” dance and chop moves). The clash between the 1963 mores and our modern sensibilities was too jarring, and we didn’t know where this musical was going. All we could sense was that there might be some form of love story between Eddie and Rose. We decided to give the musical a chance to redeem itself in Act II — after all, this had a great cast album and it had gotten many awards in its New York premiere.
I’m pleased to say that the show did redeem itself in the second act, although not in the way we expected. The second act focuses on the deepening relationship between Eddie and Rose and the strong bond between the “Three Bees”. It also features the departure for the Vietnam War, the horrors of the War itself, and what happens when the heroes return home. I don’t want to spoil things with the specifics, but they are in the synopsis, if you want to read it.
This morning, as I worked on this writeup, I strugged with what to call it. What was the heart of this story? Although titled “Dogfight”, the heart wasn’t the fight itself — that was just the catalyst to get the audience to see and meet these characters. But then I thought about a question during the after-show Salon — a question about a common phrase these characters used: “Semper Fi, Do or Die”. The heart of this story — both what holds it together and the questions that it raises — is the devotion to faithfullness and fidelity. Semper Fidelis. Always faithful. There was the faith and fidelity between the Three Bees: the bond that let them to work together to protect each other in life and in battle. There was the faith and fidelity that grew between Eddie and Rose, a different sort of bond. There was also the faith and fidelity to the ideals: of being a hero, of doing what a hero does, of coming home to that heroes welcome. This bond was very strong in Eddie: he had that heroes heart, which was hurt by not doing right by Rose in the first act. At the start of the second act he redeems that heroism, but at the sacrifice of the fidelity to his buddies. He goes off to war, and redeems himself in battle. He comes home, only to find what many servicemen found on their return to Vietnam in the mid-to-late Sixties — that they weren’t heroes in the eyes of the public… that their service wasn’t appreciated. The people didn’t want that war, and they didn’t want the people who fought it (this is a very different attitude than today, but event today Vietnam Veterans often don’t get the same respect and thanks that Iraqui war veterans get). Disappointed, Eddie held on to the one aspect of faith and fidelity he knew — Rose. Even though he never contacted her during the war and she moved on, he ultimately finds his welcome — and his faith — restored by her.
So, ultimately, what was the verdict on this show? Did the cultural mores-clash of the first act overwhelm the show? Did it leave us with a good feeling about these characters?
I’m still not sure. It left us thinking, which is perhaps what good theatre does. It left us aware of how society has changed — how we have gone from a society that thought “dogfight”-ing was acceptable to one that values women in all roles — even in the Marines. It showed the horror of war, and the value of redemption. I think the best that I can say is that this musical moved me; in moved me in ways that I did not expect.
The performances, uniformly, were excellent. I think this was due to a combination of the excellent direction by Matthew McCray (FB) and the acting talent of the performers below. McCray brought in Vietnam Veterans to talk to the performers, all but one of which were not alive during the conflict and its aftermath, and coached them on how to interact and behave in this story. Based on what we heard from the Salon before we had to leave (dinner reservations), he also gave them the freedom to find things in their characters and bring them to the stage.
Nowhere was this seen better than in the performances of the leads: Andrew Puente (FB) as Eddie Birdlace and Ashley Arlene Nelson (FB) as Rose Fenny. Puente gave a touching performance as Eddie, moving easily from Marine bravado and bluster to a scared teen on his first in the first act; he showed through his performance that although boot camp toughened the exterior, there was something deeper inside. In the second half, he was able to turn this around to find the man inside. Particularly touching was the shaky hand after that war; that touch of PTSD that demonstrated how deeply the war experiences had changed the man. Nelson radiated an equal vulnerability. Perhaps her character was harder to watch in the first act because we had been there — my wife and I grew up in this era (although about 10 years younger). We knew the vulnerable types into folk music and out of step with the rest. Nelson captured this perfectly: both the excitement and fear of a first date, the awkwardness. She also captured finding the confidence in her inner self as she got to know Eddie. In the second act, she also captured the worry of war well; during the Salon she revealed that her boyfriend is in the military, providing her a deeper understanding of the character and her fears. It was just a beautiful portrayal, combined with a beautiful voice. Note that Nelson also had a particularly lovely voice and guitar style, demonstrated on “Before It’s Over”.
The other 2 of the 3 Bees were played by James McHale (FB) (Boland) and Jonathan Rosario (FB) (Bernstein). McHale’s Borland was the opposite of Birdlace: invulnerable (in his mind) and focused on winning at any cost, even if it meant bending the rules. Of the three, he came across as most loyal to the triad, believing that its strength was what would allow them to survive the conflict to come. It was a great portrayal. In contrast was Rosarios’s Bernstein: young, naive (in many many ways), unsure about women, unsure about life. He, too, believed in the triad and hope that it would save him. Also a strong portrayal.
The remaining non-emsemble character was Kim Dalton (FB)’s Marcy. Dalton captured the hard prostitute exterior well, as well as the softer side in her interactions with Rose. She was wonderful in her main song, “Dogfight”.
The remaining actors constituted the ensemble, portraying many characters. I tried to map from some of the character lists out there, and Chance seems to switched around some of the dual roles (for example, traditionally Mama and Ruth Two-Bears are the same actress, but that was clearly not the case here; most casts lists do not have Pete/Sargent as a separate character, instead dualing with Stevens; most list a Lounge Singer, who was not explicitly identified here. The ensemble gave strong, umm, ensemble performances — especially the Marines, who bonded together as a strong group. About the only portrayal I didn’t like was Ruth Two-Bears. I don’t know whether it was the way the character was written, what the actor brought to the character, or what the director or choreographer brought to the character, but I’ve gotten too sensitized to cultural appropriate for that form of a Native American portrayal to be comfortable. Other than that, a uniformly strong ensemble performance. The ensemble consisted of Robin Walton (FB) [Pete / Sergeant / Ensemble]; John Wells III/FB [Fector / Ensemble]; David Sasik (FB) [Stevens / Ensemble]; Joseph Ott/FB [Gibbs / Ensemble]; Cassendra Rieck (FB) [Mama / Ensemble]; Nohely Quiroz (FB) [Chippy / Ensemble / Ruth Two-Bears (guess)]; and Monika Pena (FB) [Peggy / Ensemble].
The onstage musicians were under the musical direction of Taylor Stephenson, who also was on the keyboard. Supporting him were Jimmy Cormier (FB) [Guitar], Lois Good [Violin], and Jorge Zuniga (FB) [Drums / Percussion].
Choreogrpahy was by Angeline Mirenda (FB). This show didn’t have large dance numbers (as you might see on some musicals), but did have some interesting coordinated movement — especially of the Marines, who were very precise in unison. There was also effective choreography during the war sequence.
Turning to the non-performance creatives: The scenic design by Christopher Scott Murillo (FB) was … adaptable. There was a background flat-ish with an odd TV-ish design, and a number of rolling counters, tables and benches. These opened up to become bars and diners, bedrooms and scenic overlooks. It worked to tell the story, but didn’t have that depth to evoke a particular place or a particular time. There needed to be something more 1963-ish about it, but I do understand limited theatre budgets. The sound design was by Ryan Brodkin (FB). There were elements of the sound design that were strong, such as the background sounds in a number of scenes. But there were also places where the microphones were noisy (static) or unbalanced; in particular, the band overpowered the voices at times, and there was some significant microphone hiss. These adjustment problems should have been resolved during previews. The lighting design of KC Wilkerson (FB) was very effective, particularly during the war sequence where much of the story was told through lighting. Costume Design was by Christina Marie Perez (FB). This was mostly effective, particularly for the women. However, with respect to the Marines, she really should have consulted with USMC Pendleton down the road:
although as privates there would be no rank insignia, my understanding is that there would be service and name tapes and olive-green undershirts uniformly. [ETA: My earlier information was incorrect. I checked the regs with an AF Officer and he provided some clarification, as well as pointing to the Marine Corp regs. There would not have been nametags, but with the short-sleeve khakis as shown, the pants would have been olive-drab, and the undershirts would have been uniformly white. It appears there should also have been a Marine insignia pin on the collar. Being privates, there is no rank insignia.] Not a fatal flaw, certainly, but something that struck me from the beginning. Courtny Greenough (FB) was the stage manager.
Dogfight continues at the Chance Theatre (FB) through March 6. Tickets are available online or by callling 714.777.3033. The Chance page for the show lists numerous discounts, discount tickets may also be available on Goldstar.
Dining Notes: Whenever we go to the Chance, we always eat at the same place: True Seasons Organic Kitchen (FB), a healthy organic hot pot restaurant across the street from the Chance. Healthy vegetables, healthy meat, gluten free options, and home-made flavoring broths. It made a lovely valentines dinner.
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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres: The Colony Theatre (FB), Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), and I just added the Hollywood Pantages (FB). In 2015, my intimate theatre subscription was at REP East (FB), although they are reorganizing and (per the birdies) will not start 2016 shows until August. Additionally, the Colony just announced that the remainder of their season has been cancelled, so the status of that subscription is up in the air. Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: Next weekend brings brings “Prez” at the Chromolume Theatre (FB) on February 20, and “String/Awakening” from Muse/ique (FB) on February 21. February closes with The Band of the Royal Marines and the Pipes, Drums, and Highland Dancers of the Scots Guards at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). March starts with “Man Covets Bird” at the 24th Street Theatre (FB) on March 6 (the day after the MRJ Man of the Year dinner) The second weekend of March is open, thanks to the cancellation of “Another Roll of the Dice” at The Colony Theatre (FB); I’m thinking possibly of Hollywould at The Hudson Theatre (FB). The third weekend of March takes us back to the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) on March 19 to see Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina, followed by Bach at Leipzig at The Group Rep (FB) on March 20. The last weekend of March is being held for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) (pending Hottix). April will start with Lea Salonga at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on April 1 and an Elaine Boosler concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom on April 2. It will also bring the Turtle Quintet at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB), “Children of Eden” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) , and our annual visit to the Renaissance Faire (Southern). April may also bring A Shred of Evidence at Theatre 40 (FB). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.