In 1991, the independent film Dogfight, starring River Phoenix, was released. Over the years it’s become something of a cult favorite.
Set in San Francisco in 1961, it tells the story of three soldiers — the night before their posting to Vietnam — who’ve agreed to be part of a “dogfight.” This charming, and misogynistic, little Marine custom involves going out into the city, tracking down the ugliest women and bringing them to a dance where, without their knowing, the women are competing to be named most repellent. The man what brung her wins a cash prize.
Who in the world would see that movie and think, “This oughta be a musical!!!”? Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, that’s who. You might recognize them as the songwriting team behind the films La La Land (lyrics) and The Greatest Showman, as well as the current Broadway smash, Dear Evan Hansen. Pasek and Paul, along with book-writer Peter Duchan, turned the movie into an off-Broadway musical in 2013 which garnered rave reviews and put the duo on the theatrical map.
And now Stage 62 presents the Pittsburgh premiere of this decidedly off-beat musical. The dogfight of the title is just the beginning of the story, of course; both the film and musical are, in fact, romances. The hero Eddie Birdlace, after tricking Rose Fenny to the dance and the attending humiliation, tries to make amends; in the process the two fall in love. I can’t say I’d ever put this on a list of favorite musicals, but I do salute Stage 62 for making such a bold artistic choice.
Pasek & Paul’s score is played with impressive musicality by the six-piece band, thanks to music director Andrew Peters. The songs are sung with uniformly powerful and expressive voices; this production is really about the music … which is very smart since it’s mostly sung-thru. Adam Speers sings Birdlace’s numbers with a strong set of pipes; Ryan Hadbavny and Michael Tarasovich provide extraordinary vocal support as his fellow Marines. Ashley Harmon plays the dogfight “winner” with blistering contempt and aching self-loathing. And Kristin Welch brings to Rose a beautiful, soaring voice filled with need; this production is never more moving than during her two solo numbers.
Director Rob James gets credit for propelling the show through some of its more hazardous pitfalls and, especially, for rounding up and guiding this cast of amazing singers.