Regional Reviews: Boston
The dynamic trio of director Paul Daigneault, music director José Delgado and choreographer Larry Sousa brings out the best in their passionate ensemble, which features no less than half a dozen present or former products of The Boston Conservatory. Two of them are twinkling new stars Alejandra M. Parrilla (Rose) and Jordan J. Ford (Eddie Birdlace), whose lead performances are alternately heart wrenching and empowering. Birdlace and his buddies Bernstein (Drew Arisco, naive charm) and Boland (Jared Troilo, like a powder keg) make up the "Three Bees," ready to take on the girls of San Francisco and the enemy in the jungle, shouting "Semper Fi, Do or Die!" Their nationalism and innocence are astounding for those of us who know what lies ahead.
Dogfight, adapted from the 1991 film of the same name, begins and ends in 1967, but plays out mostly in a flashback to November 21, 1963. The troupe of Marines, also including Dave Heard, Dylan James Whelan and Edward Rubenacker, plans a "dogfight" party for their last night stateside. Each of them kicks in fifty bucks and goes out to find the ugliest girl to bring to the dance, the winner taking home the pot of money. With thirteen weeks of training under their belts, they have quickly grasped the concept of dehumanizing people while flaunting their own entitled superiority. Most of the girls are unaware of the theme until Boland's date Marcy (McCaela Donovan), a ringer because she's a prostitute, blows the lid off and opens the floodgates of Rose's watershed moment.
Although it is a cruel practice, the party scene has both humor and pathos, and it features a couple of terrific performances by supporting players. Donovan wraps her petite frame around Marcy's big, ballsy personality, standing her ground against the ingratiating alpha dog Boland, and belting out the anthemic title song. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jenna Lea Scott is hysterical, closely impersonating a cigar store Indian as Ruth Two Bears, a mostly non-verbal, stone-faced, immoveable object brought to the dance by Bernstein. In one of his seven roles, Patrick Varner (a scene-stealer) is the lounge singer who croons a beautiful song ("That Face") while holding up scorecards to rate each of the girls on the ugly scale.
Scott later appears as a thick-skinned madam and one of three not-so-welcoming hippies that Birdlace encounters upon his return to San Francisco in 1967. Liliane Klein (she also plays Rose's sympathetic mother) and Donovan join Scott in designer Elisabetta Polito's costumes with fringe and beads to portray the cultural chasm the soldier faces. Already lost and foundering after the horror he experienced in the war, the city and its denizens are unrecognizable to him. Ford is remarkable in the final scenes, transforming from the cocky jarhead to the shattered veteran with gut-wrenching emotion, filling every note of his last song ("Come Back") with angst. Again, for those of us who lived through that time, the authenticity of this conclusion is evocative and powerful.
The swagger and aggression of Birdlace and his buddies are nicely countered by Rose's goodness. Parrilla is endearing from the get-go and doesn't appear to be fazed in the least by her critical role, nor by stripping down to her skivvies with the audience seated so close by in the reconfigured Roberts Studio Theatre. Her voice is sweet, blending beautifully with Ford's, and they both capture the fits and starts of Rose's and Eddie's relationship. Rose is shy and tentative when they meet, but grows more confident in the glow of his attention, while ultimately learning that she is a strong person in her own right. Parrilla travels her character's arc without a false note and convinces us that Rose's experience leads to growth without bitterness.
Daigneault and his designers Cristina Todesco (scenic), Jeff Adelberg (lighting), and David Reiffel (sound) make excellent use of the space, with the audience on three sides of the floor and actors coming and going from all four corners. At the far end, a balcony overlooks the room and is used for the dance scene as well as representing the Golden Gate Bridge, and two tall, rolling metal staircases access the balcony and serve as a variety of locations to keep the show moving. Lighting changes and sound effects are especially crucial to the dogfight arena and a war scene, and Polito's costumes reflect the changing times.
Dogfight is composed of a lot of great parts, from the sparkling leads, to the fully-realized characters, to the big sound of the four-piece band, and the athletic choreography. It is a moving, living piece of musical theater that captures the zeitgeist and actually ends up being greater than the sum of its great parts.
Dogfight, performances through June 4, 2016, by SpeakEasy Stage Company, at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.BostonTheatreScene.com.
Music & Lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, Book by Peter Duchan, Based on the Warner Bros. Film and Screenplay by Bob Comfort; Directed by Paul Daigneault, Music Direction by José Delgado, Choreography by Larry Sousa; Scenic Design, Cristina Todesco; Costume Design, Elisabetta Polito; Lighting Design, Jeff Adelbert; Sound Design, David Reiffel; Production Stage Manager, Dawn Schall Saglio; Assistant Stage Manager, Tareena D. Wimpish
Cast (in alphabetical order): Drew Arisco, McCaela Donovan, Jordan J. Ford, Dave Heard, Liliane Klein, Alejandra M. Parrilla, Edward Rubenacker, Jenna Lea Scott, Jared Troilo, Patrick Varner, Dylan James Whelan