Dogfight and Murder Ballad
If you only know their work on the well-crafted but sweetly cheery, endearing recent Broadway holiday visitor A Christmas Story, you might be happily surprised to find the very different colors and drama in a score by the same young writers: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. But their versatility and abilities to explore and paint the darker, deeper sides of human experience have not been secrets to those who've been aware and observing for a while now. A recent production leading to a recent cast album adds a major feather to their caps. Here, their work is captivating and exhilaratingwhen it's not tugging at our tear ducts.
Here is a textbook example of how to take a specific plot and slice of life and universalize it. Dogfight fights to overcome some theatrical challengesin a theatre or on disc. We find visceral emotions to identify with and people to care about and forgive for their foibles and faults. Let's address a major hurdle here, in terms of garnering audience sympathies for major characters who toy with women's feelings to selfishly seek a cash prize for one judged the ugliest. Call it insensitive, call it sexist, call it truer to its pre-consciousness-raising times (1963), blame it on "boys-will-be boys" bonding with major blind spotsif we can get past that big hurdle, we can then move on. The fact that they are randy young Marines about to be shipped off to Vietnam buys some leeway, with 20/20 historical hindsight combined with the "now" of the play. And some awareness of the guys' own myopic cruelty helpsat least they aren't clueless and blind once reality sets in.
With energies bubbling and bristling, Dogfight, and we, root for its awkward, fragile central female underdog character. Rose, as played and sung by Lindsay Mendez, is an anchoring, vulnerable performance. Shy, insecure, ripe for a rude awakening, we want to protect her and flash warning signs. The character's underlying goodness, smarts and warmth make her not some one-dimensional Pollyanna and mark her as being more than a very vulnerable victim. There's some language that's crass, too, but it's not as frequent as feared from some early tracks where vulgar words and vulgar attitudes are sprinkled more liberally. As her escort Eddie, Derek Klena has a rangy performance and material that lets us the character's wars-and-all personalitythe bravado, the dopiness, the awakening, and the rage and worry anyone would understandably have going off to war with limited knowledge or life experience. A brave front? Cocky but perhaps false confidence? A fear of showing emotions until they bubble overit's all there. A strong supporting cast shines with some material that's quite strong, too.
As the embittered prostitute, Annaleigh Ashford and her assigned material veer toward telegraphing where she's at and the messages to be conveyed, especially in the title song, despite a fair amount of dialogue segues before and within musical numbers (book is by Peter Duchan, based on a film of the same name). Some shorthand in musical theatre can be partially to blame and partially excused. Pasek and Paul provide pithy moments aplenty, and are notable for melody lines (big and small phrases) that wisely exploit emotional explosions with rising figures and youthful verve and buoyancy for the Marines one is tempted to call "boys" rather than men. Nick Blaemire and Josh Segarra are just right as protagonist Eddie's egging-each-other-on cohorts.
A seven-person band led by keyboardist Bryan Perri percolates instead of plodding or pushing buttons. The orchestrations by veteran Michael Starobin and Paul's own vocal arrangements enrich and thrill. The dominant flavors of angst and "antsyness" crackle, but they aren't overdone. The edgier dynamism and desperate celebratory story-driven musical pictures are relieved by more subtle, thoughtful, multi-layered settings and accents. Tempi change, songs have climaxes and surprises, with tension and cascades, only occasionally erring on the side of repetition or starting at too high a level with not much room to build.
Many numbers demonstrate a rich palette of melodic ideas and well-crafted lyrics that rarely call attention to their glibness or skill. Mainly, they sound like people talking naturalistically, with a nice balance of more articulate inner monologues. Pouncing on choices of words with double meanings isn't overdone, but effective and satisfying, even if one might guess that's where we're going (example: "Pretty Funny," wherein the first word can mean "attractive" or "quite a bit" and the other word can mean "ha-ha" or "coincidental").
Whereas the little boy in A Christmas Story longed to be gifted with the toy rifle he sees in a store window, here it's an all-too-real "tough young buck cradlin' an M-14" imagining the "Hometown Hero's Ticker Tape Parade" which, like other examples deftly done, mixes seductive would-be patriotism with the pessimism of the price paid and the insidiousness. This is a listening experience with much to offer: bursts of joy and many moments that are bittersweet, aching or thought-provoking. And I can't wait to see what the young team of Pasek and Paul will bring us in years to come.
You don't have to be a true detective or musical comedy sleuth to see where we're going in the dour and driving Murder Ballad. The foreshadowing of many moves and the claustrophobia of the clatter can make the matter more a chore than an intriguing who's-gonna-have-dunnit. The 75-minute cast album gives us lots of time with the three protagonists in a love triangle. From listening to the album, one doesn't really get to know the married couple or the wife's re-emerging ex-lover. What can become especially wearing is the too-often wailing narrator (Rebecca Naomi Jones). If it were a card game, you might say too many people are showing their hands. That can work in theatre and its scores, as we lament the inevitable we know will come, and we wonder about the "why" of character motivation and the "how" of plot twists. For me, it is distancing because of its relentless and non-specificity and non-engagement that set in pretty early.
In this recording of the score with music by Julianna Nash and lyrics credited to both her and conceiver/bookwriter Julia Jordan, there are 39 (!) tracks, many of which end abruptly and without fanfare, buttons, or a payoff or pow. Many of them begin with a jarring shock of rock electricity with instantly blaring guitars and pounding, pounding percussion. Bland conversations about day-to-day lifeless life or small talk (various numbered versions called "Prattle") are enervating; guilt trips, blame games, and promises of love start to feel redundant. That's exacerbated by some thin melodies reprised, despite different sets of lyrics. Though some could be labeled derivative, there's respite from the sturm und drang with tender, more artful moments like "I'll Be There" ("If I'm the spinning earth, then you are my sun/ There's nowhere to hide and there's nowhere to run"). More often, it's soap opera self-pity or torrents of accusatory venom. Example: the reprise of "Little by Little" which includes the lines "What does he have that I don't?" and "What kind of a mother are you?" and actually uses the word "cliché." There are some flashes of more creative word usage, such as comparing the protagonists to those in a French movie, wherein appropriate cinematic celeb names "Truffaut" and "Belmondo" are rhymed. Another name-dropping number rhymes "hero" with [Robert] "DeNiro."
Elsewhere, I long for something more graceful, understated or sympathetic and smoother in this cast album with four singer-actors and a four-person band. Adding to the clunkiness is too frequently settling for lazy false rhymes on less-than-inspired lines: around/down; breath/Heaven-sent; swim/within; and "tucked away" and "fell away."
There are some potent turns for John Ellison Conlee as the husband who grouses and rages and then takes a somewhat effective detour to hurt that can engender some sympathy as the man scorned. Talented Will Swenson as the ex comes off best vocally and feels like the most interesting of the lot, if only because he has some material allowing for more romanticism and reflection.
Playing keyboards and guitar, Justin Levine is also credited with musical direction, vocal arrangements and orchestrations, while Antoine Silverman gets billing for "musical coordination." There are points to be made in the presentation, such as the glorification of violence in pop songs (the opening number version of the title song references Bobby Darin's swingin' pop record of "Mack the Knife" and The Beatles' peppy "Maxwell's Silver Hammer").
I'd hoped to get pulled in by Murder Ballad, but found myself resisting it and its characters much of the time. There's no denying Karen Olivo's formidable presence at the center of the love triangle. Maybe it just isn't my cup of tea, though I have been mesmerized by musicals exploring the dark side, such as See What I Wanna See. In the case of this new musical, characters are less mysterious and less sympathetic and less clearly drawn, my senses felt attacked or, in the long run, dulled. But, like any play which received a mixed reception, this recently closed piece's cast album will have its advocates, finding its catharsis and drama.
But the adventurous Yellow Sound Label has shown it has something for all tastes in contemporary musical theatre it documents (and some vocalists' outings). They've got a quite good track record, and I'll look forward to spinning the next one.