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Trent Mills, Payson Lewis, and Spencer Strong Smith in Dogfight at the Hudson MainStage Theatre. (Photo by Nicole Priest)
Trent Mills, Payson Lewis, and Spencer Strong Smith in Dogfight at the Hudson MainStage Theatre. (Photo by Nicole Priest)

Dogfight

Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Hudson Mainstage
Through June 25

This new musical, with book by Peter Duchan and music and lyrics by the team that produced La La Land, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is based on the movie Dogfight, from a script by Bob Comfort. Superficially, it resembles the 1944 musical On the Town, which featured three World War II sailors enjoying their last shore leave in Manhattan before shipping out overseas. In the current production, we see three Vietnam era marines on their last leave in San Francisco before embarking for Asia and the war. But there the resemblance ends.

On the Town was a product of WWII, and reflects the optimism of a war which was, if not exactly good, at least necessary. The three sailors were essentially sunny, good-hearted and decent. Here, the three marines, Eddie Birdlace (Payson Lewis), Boland (Spencer Strong Smith) and Bernstein (Trent Mills) have come of age in a darker, more cynical time, and their outlook reflects that fact. They’re good buddies who call themselves the three Bees. They are crude, crass and cruel, and their efforts to pick up girls seem more like sexual harassment than courtship. And they are embarked on a mean-spirited contest to see who can pick up the ugliest girl.

Birdlace zeroes in on a young waitress, Rose Fenny (Nicci Claspell), and resolves to make her his date. He flatters and cons her and invites her to the party. She is thrilled because she likes him, despite his phony line and his foulmouthed conversation. She dresses up in her best, and is all set for what she thinks will be a wonderful party. But he’s having second thoughts: he really likes the girl, and doesn’t want to humiliate her by taking her to the “ugly” party. But she insists. He promised her a party, and he has to deliver.

At the party, she soon discovers the nature of the game, and is both mortified and furious.

She tells Birdlace off in resounding terms and storms out. And he, shamed and contrite, realizes he really doesn’t want to let her go. He seeks her out to beg forgiveness and take her out on a real date. After some spirited resistance, she accepts his invitation. She proves to be a spunky girl with a mischievous streak and a touch of wit. They hit it off, and she invites him to spend the night, and sees him off in the morning.

The second act turns darker, as the Three Bees head for Vietnam.

The show offers some lively numbers, athletic choreography, and an engaging cast, but it suffers from a serious structural problem. The romantic plot, involving Birdlace and Rose, is essentially wrapped up in Act I, and what comes after seems like a different show, which ends in a perfunctory reunion that offers little emotional payoff.

Directors Jennifer Strattan and Jennifer Oundjian give the piece a spirited production —sometimes too spirited. In practically every number, the ensemble seems to dominate, with the result that it’s not until the second act that we really get to know most of the characters. Lewis’s Birdlace is a pugnacious loudmouth and vulgarian till he’s tamed and civilized by Claspell’s Rose, while she, in a nicely understated performance, proves both feisty and funny.  

Mills and Smith, as Bernstein and Boland, make the most of their material — but they wouldn’t have lasted long in the marines if their uniforms were that sloppy.  And Emily Morris scores nicely as a gal who gets shortchanged by the prankish leathernecks.

Elmo Zapp provides able music direction, and leads the six-person instrumental combo. Justin Ryan Brown designed the set, and co-director Oundjian choreographed.  

 

Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood.  Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; www.plays411.com/dogfight. Running time: Two hours with one 15 minute intermission.

 

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