Librettist Peter Duchan and songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have accomplished a feat that's almost unthinkable amid today's sterile, dangerously respectful crop of by-the-numbers film adaptations: They've improved on their source. The 1991 movie of the same name, which starred River Phoenix and Lili Taylor was inconsistent in tone, wavering between the grit of a wartime documentary and the unbridled earnestness of a shipping-out-soon love story, without fully reconciling the two halves dramatically. It was affecting, but felt incomplete, as if it lacked the crucial chemical ingredients needed to fuse its two halves into one.
It's clear now what those were: the immediacy of the stage and a rich musical language to elucidate the lives of the characters in ways they could never do by themselves. The people in this chronicle of November, 1963, San Francisco live in blissfully unawareness of the change about to assault them on all fronts, and of the roles they'll play in building the social consciousness to come. When we meet them, they're caught in between, knowing that something's wrong but not comprehending exactly what it is or how to change it.
This is evident from the presence of the central event that gives the musical its title: a party in which each member of a troupe of marines, all of whom are scheduled to depart for Asia the following morning, tries to bring the ugliest girl he can and walk away with the collected winnings. The chief competitors are "The Three Bees," so nicknamed because they were grouped together by their last names during infantry training: Bernstein (Nick Blaemire), who sees the evening as an obstacle to losing his virginity before shipping out; Boland (Josh Segarra), who sees commitment to his cohorts and country as paramount; and Birdlace (Derek Klena), who's angry at the world for reasons he can't articulate.
But Pacek and Paul also inject this tension into the score, setting up a conflict between the raging earthiness of Birdlace and his buddies and Rose's heartfelt folksiness. The raucous first number, "Some Kinda Time," recalls the opener of another famous military-trio musical, On the Town, instantly immersing us in their anything-for-a-good-time outlook. Rose's first solo, on the other hand, is "Nothing Short of Wonderful," a breathless exploration of feelings she's never before experienced that wouldn't be out of place in tune stacks as intellectual as Stephen Sondheim's or as warm as Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's.
Birdlace and Rose's musical aesthetics only merge well into the second act, when they not only share a quiet dating duet but eventually swap each other's outlooks to demonstrate exactly what each has learned from the other. Michael Starobin's orchestrations gracefully cover the necessary styles from a full spin around the radio dial, and musical director Bryan Perri keeps them percolating at the proper gentle heat throughout. But the songs themselves are even more integral at showing us the scope and sweep of this unassuming romance that has surprising sea-to-shining sea implications.
Director Joe Mantello has staged the show simply but sumptuously, handsomely balancing the two different kinds of intimacy that delineate the various factions in Birdlace's life. Christopher Gattelli's choreography elicits raw percussive power from the marine scenes, with starched movements and crisp attitudes that portray the range of internal and external forces against which the men are fighting. David Zinn's evocative costumes, which creatively summon 60s styles without openly mocking them, surpass his set, which looks like a cafeteria served with a side dish of (ugly) scaffolding. And Paul Gallo's lights run a bit too heavy on the shadows.
The performances, however, are delightfully nuanced, down to the tiniest roles. Klena (recently seen as Tommy in Carrie) and Mendez display superb chemistry that blooms as Birdlace and Rose build (and occasionally break) bonds of trust; their relationship develops so gradually and so smoothly, you may be pardoned for not figuring out whether they're in love before they do. Mendez is especially good at finding the bursting bud within the outward wallflower, who grows into her own as circumstances allow her, but Klena has no trouble movingly tapping into the pain of disintegrated dreams that propels Birdlace to his final feet.
Blaemire and Segarra cannily negotiate Bernstein and Boland's own fraught evolution, without ever seeming to be pure, pointless contrasts to Birdlace. Annaleigh Ashford is a wry charmer as Boland's deceptive date, Becca Ayers projects the proper quiet authority (if too much prevailing youthfulness) as Rose's mother, and Dierdre Friel makes a hilarious (and virtually wordless) appearance as Bernstein's entrant in the put-down pageant.
None of the women in that contest may be perfect, and the show itself certainly has room for improvement: Another song or two in the second act would help even things out, and Duchan's book gets noticeably heavy handed in the final scenes. But, as is true of its characters, redemption never appears to be more than a heartbeat away, and the musical deeply satisfies as it depicts a chaotic reordering of mid-20th-century American ideals. So what if Dogfight doesn't always say something new? In its striving to polish its often-heard messages to perfection, it proves itself the real thing just the same