Andrew Bittenbender & Celeste Vonderschmitt. Photo: Acting Against Cancer
Music & lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul
Book by Peter Duchan, based on the Warner Bros. film
and screenplay by Bob Comfort
Directed & choreographed by Sydney Magers
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2019 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
There are iconic musicals that always seem to pop on some local company’s schedule on a regular basis, but what of the lesser known shows that don’t enjoy quite the same level of success?
Dogfight premiered off-Broadway in 2012, three years before its creators’ smash hit Dear Evan Hansen won the Tony for Best Musical Score. An adaptation of the little-known 1991 movie directed by Nancy Savoca, the story depicts a group of Vietnam-bound U.S. Marines in San Francisco. They spend their last evening of leave in a “dogfight” competition in which the winner is the “jarhead” that secures the ugliest date for the night.
Eddie Birdlace (Andrew Bittenbender) meets Rose (Celeste Vonderschmitt) working in the diner owned by her mother (Hannah Jones Thomas) and immediately recognizes her potential in the competition. For the purposes of this story, Rose is overweight, plain, and socially awkward. Her naiveté about parties and men is perhaps a tad overdrawn, but Eddie’s persuasive charm wins her over.
Before the Marines gather for a party and the final round of the contest, Eddie is taken enough with Rose to have second thoughts, but peer pressure and the momentum of the evening override his conscience. The scenes involving the other women are the comic highpoint of the show, especially Lauren McCombs’ hilarious turn as Marcy, a tough-as-nails prostitute who Boland, in violation of the rules, has paid to play along. McCombs and Vonderschmitt are powerful in their duet of the title number.
The story goes much, much further than the insulting dogfight, connecting the toxic masculinity of military culture with the political hubris behind the Vietnam disaster. While Eddie is changed by his evening with Rose, drawn to her authentic decency and compassion, his buddies are trapped in the cliché, to the point of crossing the line to sexual assault without a moment’s hesitation.
The score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul carries the narrative through plaintive ballads, comic songs, and moments of tragedy and remorse without skipping a beat. It’s a fluid and expressive piece of composition and the cast does it full-throated justice. In fact, moment for moment, this ensemble sings with as much consistent quality as any company in town, and in the cozy and intimate ArtSpace, they do it without microphones.
Sydney Magers matches the energy of the score with coherent staging and snappy choreography. Her name in the program only lists her as director, but if Ms. Magers can demonstrate this much game, she should not be coy about taking the credit.
Celeste Vonderschmitt bypasses any Pollyannaish tendencies to craft Rose with dignity and integrity. She is shy and gullible but not the defenseless wallflower that Eddie assumes, and she brings enough charm to the role to make you fall right in love.
As Eddie, the very talented Andrew Bittenbender is a textbook of effective musical theatre performance, communicating the shifting emotional dynamic of the character through his singing and dancing. It’s an authoritative performance, and he has a marvelous voice, but he doesn’t quite reach the emotional resonance of Ms. Vonderschmitt. There are a little too many repetitive gestures and overemphatic emoting to be fully satisfying, but Vonderschmitt brings out the best in him, and together they build the soulful heart of Dogfight.
As Eddie’s closest friends, the 2nd and 3rd of the “bees”, are the excellent Alex Hamilton and Alex Roby. The remaining members of this very able ensemble are Hayley Amoss, Adam Byrd, Tyler Dippold, David Edward, Grace Greenwell, Shi Jordan, Patrick Jump, and Peighton Radlein.
The great value of a company like Acting Against Cancer is the freedom to mount both the high profile entertainments (Mamma Mia!) and thematically more challenging and complex shows such as Dogfight. What’s really cool is that they have hit a sweet spot for quality that allows them to do both with equal degrees of accomplishment.
March 29, 30, April 1, 4, 5, & 6 @ 8:00pm
March 31 & April 7 @ 5:30pm
Acting Against Cancer
323 W. Broadway, Third Floor.
Louisville, KY 40202
$20 in advance and $22 at the door and are available at aacDOGFIGHT.brownpapertickets.com
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.