Of the new musicals having their regional premieres in North Texas this year, it’s hard to imagine any will surpass the beauty that is Dogfight, having its first professional production outside of New York at WaterTower Theatre. (It premiered off-Broadway in 2012.)
Directed by Terry Martin, WaterTower’s production is filled with take-your-breath-away moments, but a big part of that is the musical itself.
It has music and lyrics by the rising duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who first made waves with their song cycle Edges, and were nominated for Tony Awards in 2013 for their work on the musical version of A Christmas Story. Dogfight has a book by Peter Duchan, based on the screenplay by Bob Comfort for the 1991 indie film of the same name starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor.
The story is immediately affecting: It’s San Francisco, Nov. 21, 1963 — the eve of JFK’s assassination — and Marines Eddie (Zak Reynolds), Boland (Kyle Igneczi) and Bernstein (Matt Ransdell Jr.) are about to be shipped to Vietnam. They have a going-away party and engage in a game of “dogfight,” in which they wager to see who can bring the ugliest girl to the dance. The winner gets the pot.
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Eddie spots the pleasantly plus-size Rose (Juliette Talley) at the diner where she works, and wins her over into going with him. But she ends up changing his views on women and the world.
It’s tough material, but Duchan’s book sets up the story and each of the turning points masterfully; we’re always wondering what’s around the corner, and have a genuine emotional reaction — laughter, delight, sadness — at what we find there.
Pasek and Paul’s music and lyrics are truly worth being excited about. It’s one of the most original and lyrical compositional voices since the likes of Jason Robert Brown and Adam Guettel had the musical-theater world abuzz in the 1990s. The playful piano, subtle complexities and motifs are memorable; the lyrics and clever use of rhyme clearly exhibits a talent honed from studying the great lyricists from Frank Loesser to Stephen Sondheim.
Just try leaving without the catchiness of songs like Some Kinda Time and Come to a Party, or the gorgeousness of Pretty Funny, Give Way or Come Back running through your head. These, as with the other songs, are refreshing in that they they’re well-constructed theater songs, a seminal part of the narrative — something we’ve lost in the barrage of jukebox musicals, adaptations of blockbuster films and all-out campfests.
Martin’s production does it proud. Michael Sullivan’s scenic design of muted blue-tone squares and rectangles on every wall allows room for the mutlilevel playing spaces to be used as a number of settings, and Michael Robinson’s costumes capture the era, notably with the women’s dresses.
Music director Mark Mullino leads a six-member orchestra, and sounds terrific on the soft, mood-setting piano parts. Choreographer John de los Santos, known in Cowtown for his direction at Fort Worth Opera, gives the ensemble deceptively easy-looking and distinctive movement.
In various ensemble roles, there are also standouts from Beth Albright as chatty prostitute Marcy, Steve Barcus as a waiter and veteran, and Stephanie Riggs as Rose’s mother.
Talley, who has done a few smaller roles on stages around town, is the clear star here. Her Rose, a character we think might shrink away after being humiliated, follows her instincts and dreams believably. Her vibrato threatens to get out of control in a few places, but she sings the score passionately. It’s easy to see how she can charm — and change — someone with a hardened heart of someone who’s about to go into war and has learned to let go of emotional attachments.
Reynolds, who grew up in a stage family in Fort Worth and performed from a young age at Kids Who Care, stays on the tightrope walk between a serviceman conditioned to think one way (“Semper fi, do or die!”) but not afraid to cautiously listen to his heart. In the end, as he suffers what a lot of vets returning from war go through, his emotional and psychological conundrum in Come Back is palpable.
He has changed in profound ways, and that’s before the war forever altered the lives of vets and their families, and the innocence of the Camelot years seemed forever lost. To think that, for him, it started with a smart, funny, giving and beautiful woman.
Through Aug. 17
WaterTower Theatre, 15650 Addison Road, Addison