Almost eighty years ago now, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote the classic musical ON THE TOWN, about three sailors on leave for twenty-four hours in New York City in the midst of World War II. The sailors were sweet, innocent guys looking for a bit of romance. The women they hooked up with were far less sexually naive. Now in the fine new musical DOGFIGHT, we have three young marines about to be shipped off as "advisers" to Vietnam (it is 1963) enjoying their last twenty-four hours on leave in San Francisco. These guys are tougher and less innocent (or so they would like each other to think) than the young men in ON THE TOWN. Instead of looking for romance, they are planning a dogfight, a contest to see who can bring the ugliest girl to the party they are throwing. This little project is sexist and mean-spirited. These are guys not used to being around women. Male bonding is much easier for them. Eddie (Derek Klena) meets Rose (Lindsay Mendez), a waitress in a diner her mother owns. At first he invites her to the party as his ugly date, but he comes to find he really likes this young woman who is far wiser and more talented than he. Most of the musical is the story of their one night romance. Two years later, a shell shocked Eddie returns to a very different San Francisco, filled with hippies and homosexuals, a place where people spit at war veterans, hoping to reunite with Rose.
This simple romance, adapted from a film (of course!) is the basis for a lovely show. The music and lyrics (by Ben Pasek and Justin Paul) are excellent. The songs range from rock-inflected upbeat tunes to sweet ballads to Sondheimy patter songs. Why is it that the two really fine scores I have heard this year are from Off-Broadway musicals while the new Broadway scores range from serviceable (NEWSIES) to mediocre (ONCE)? One can hear Pasek and Paul's influences, but they have their own musical voice and the lyrics are apt for the characters and don't seem at all forced. It's a tuneful, memorable score and every song seems justified by character and action. In fact, we said on the way out that the show needs one more musical number for the final scene, now left in dialogue.
Second Stage's production of DOGFIGHT is a class act. Celebrated director Joe Mantello staged it and Christopher Gatelli provided the choreography. The young cast is all one could ask for. Derek Klena captures Eddie's bravado and bafflement at his feelings for this homely girl. Lindsay Mendez lets us see from the outset that Rose is not only physically substantial but a person of substance. They both are terrific singers.
I have never seen the film on which this show is based, but this musical version of DOGFIGHT is a touching romance set to a fine score. Highly recommended!!
DOGFIGHT. Second Stage Theatre. July 4, 2012.