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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

The Keegan Theatre

The Keegan Theatre in Washington and directors Christina A. Coakley and Michael Innocenti have staged a gentle but moving production of the musical Dogfight in its beautifully renovated space, centering on a luminous performance by Isabelle Smelkinson.

Composers and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – whose most recent work, Dear Evan Hansen, is headed to New York after its successful run at Arena Stage – created Dogfight in 2012, based on a 1991 movie that starred River Phoenix and Lili Taylor. Peter Duchan’s book closely follows Bob Comfort’s screenplay, covering one night in San Francisco (as it happens, Nov. 21, 1963) and bracketing scenes set in 1967.

Eddie Birdlace (Tiziano D’Affuso), a young Marine, and his buddies Boland (Harrison Smith) and Bernstein (David Landstrom) are shipping out to Okinawa, and then Vietnam, in the morning. They decide to celebrate their last night of freedom by setting up a “dogfight”: each man attending the event pays into a pot and then finds the ugliest woman he can to be his date. The man with the least appealing date, in the eyes of the other men, wins the prize money.

Then Birdlace meets Rose (Smelkinson), an aspiring folksinger who works in her mother’s diner. She’s pudgy, socially awkward, and has political views far different from his, all of which would make her seem a perfect victim. During the night, Birdlace begins to notice the underlying cruelty he finds in the camaraderie of his Marine friends: they stick together at any cost and care nothing about anyone outside their group. (A scene involving threatened violence against a prostitute brings this point home directly.)

Although the plot follows Birdlace’s journey, Rose seizes the attention in this production. D’Affuso ably depicts a boy who matures into a man, but he stays comparatively reserved throughout. Smelkinson plays the emotions that crash into each other: wariness, giddiness, determination, self-possession, and ultimately a willingness to be vulnerable.

Keegan Theatre
August 22nd – September 19th
Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul
Book by Peter Duchan
Based on the Warner Bros. film and screenplay by Bob Comfort
Birdlace: Tiziano D’Affuso
Rose: Isabelle Smelkinson
Boland: Harrison Smith
Bernstein: David Landstrom
Marcy/Peggy/Ensemble: Dani Stoller
Pete/Lounge Singer/Ensemble: Chad Wheeler
Ruth/Ensemble: Chani Wereley
Stevens: Matt Hirsh
Gibbs: Ian Anthony Coleman
Fector: Ricky Drummond
Chippy/Ensemble: Eben K. Logan
Mama/Suzette/Ensemble: Susan Marie Rhea
Directed by Christina A. Coakley and Michael Innocenti
Music director: Jake Null
Choreography by Kurt Boehm
1742 Church St. NW, Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 703-892-0202 or

-- Susan Berlin

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.

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