In the exquisite StageWorks Fresno production of “Dogfight,” the ache begins early. It commences courtesy of Ellie West’s noteworthy face, which as an actor she uses to remarkable effect.
Her character, Rose, is a central figure in this unlikely musical tale, set in a long-ago San Francisco of 1963, about a group of U.S. Marines who throw a party — viciously referred to as a “dogfight” — in which the men compete to bring the ugliest date. When Rose, who is overweight, is approached by the handsome and fast-talking Eddie (Jordan Litz, in the best performance I’ve seen him give yet), who asks her to a party, her reaction is one of wonder mixed with wariness.
It would be tempting, I suspect, to play this moment in an assertive way: to moon over Eddie, say, or narrow one’s eyes in suspicion, or to project fierceness and independence. West does none of these — but she also does all of them. I could use the words “passive” or “minimalism” to characterize her technique, but it’s hard to describe the tone of what she accomplishes here: that of a woman who is vulnerable but also almost scarily strong, of a risk-taker who hopes for the best but knows that she is leaving herself exposed.
I know “Dogfight” is a hard sell, and I can almost hear you, the reader, ticking off the reasons why a musical such as this just isn’t your thing: It sounds mean, depressing and certainly is not an expected topic for a show in which people sing.
I reply: Yes, it is all those things. But it also filled with humor, redemption and joy. And it is exactly because people sing that “Dogfight” — which is based on the non-musical 1991 film starring River Phoenix and Lily Taylor — is so transcendent.
This beautiful show, which touched audiences off-Broadway in 2012, takes you places within the human psyche — brittle peaks and low, murky crevasses — that perhaps can only be reached through music.
The production, under the accomplished and razor-sharp direction of Joel C. Abels, is certainly among the best you’ll see locally this year, and it deserves to have every remaining ticket in its limited run clamored for, much as the hot new musical “Hamilton” is playing hard to get on Broadway.
Peter Duchan wrote the book, which explores themes of masculinity and the conflicted American response to the Vietnam War. Told as an extended flashback, we first meet Eddie Birdlace returning to San Francisco after a tour of duty in Vietnam.
The moment he gets off the bus he’s enveloped in memories, and soon we’re reliving his last night stateside before shipping off with his buddies. That’s when the dogfight is proposed and enacted upon, and soon Eddie is making the acquaintance of Rose, who works in a neighborhood diner.
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the music and lyrics, achieve with their close harmonies a bittersweet blend of upbeat momentum and reflective melancholy. (Vocal coach Jennifer Appleby deserves a shout-out.) Numbers such as the opening “Some Kinda Time,” sung by Eddie and his company of Marines, capture the strutting presence and virility of these men. Pasek and Paul can go to the other extreme as well, such as in the haunting and lyrical “Take Me Back,” which opens and closes the show.
The music doesn’t stand up and beg to be acknowledged; it falls into place organically. And, thanks to a live seven-piece band, conducted by Matthew Wheeler, it feels warm and all-encompassing, while Regina Harris’ top-notch sound design, which puts the recent national tour of “The Book of Mormon” to shame, ahem, makes every lyric sing.
With a minimal set evoking a San Francisco neighborhood — Mark Riedel and Abels’ two-level design consists of signs for such locales as an arcade, garage, nightclub along with an evocative nod to the Golden Gate Bridge — Abels expertly weaves together a sense of time, space and frenetic energy as the Marines disperse throughout the city to find their “dates.” Choreographer Josh Montgomery pumps up many of the numbers with deft moves. Costumer Mallory Moad and makeup designer Sarah Puckett’s work is excellent, especially in helping to define the women dogfight attendees.
I had some issues with Jennifer Sullivan’s lighting design in StageWorks’ last production, “Into the Woods,” but her work here is crisp and effective.
I only had two tiny quibbles with the whole production when I saw it opening weekend: that the broad comedy of the Lounge Singer (Chris Carsten), who sings for the Marine party, seemed a little out of sync with the vibe of the show, and that the Marines need to be better marchers, considering they just got out of basic training.
“Dogfight” is very much about its two central characters, and as Rose and Eddie get to know each other better, their relationship grows more complicated. For Litz, it’s a tough role because the audience is so predisposed against his character (and for good reason), but he brings texture and substance to Eddie. (In his most gripping song, the anguished “Come Back,” Litz delivers sterling vocals and a sturdy emotional depth; as he reached for his highest notes I was reminded of an expert sculptor chiseling his marble with confident strokes.)
But beyond Rose and Eddie, the StageWorks ensemble delivers in every way. Gian Console, as the hyperactive Bernstein, one of Eddie’s best buds, is a standout, particularly in a scene in a tattoo parlor in which he and fellow Marine Boland (a strong Josh Hansen) acknowledge the enormity of the conflict they’re about to join.
Sharon Burley, as Marcy, one of the dogfight attendees, is brutally good, and Kelsey Deroian, as Rose’s mother, is another standout. There isn’t one weak link among the male and female members of the ensemble.
And then there’s West, a third year Fresno State theater major, whose performance as Rose is revelatory. “Dogfight” is Rose’s story, and through her eyes we feel, ache, fight, laugh and rejoice. You can’t ask for much more from a musical than that.
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