SpeakEasy's "Dogfight": Boy Rates Girl

Alejandra M. Parrilla & Jordan J. Ford in "Dogfight"
(photo: Glenn Perry Photography)

Sometimes when you least expect it, a piece of musical theater arrives on your doorstop for one magical night, makes you fall in love with it, and goes on its way to pursue a future you can't predict, while leaving behind an unforgettable memory of a brief but beautiful encounter.  The musical Dogfight is such an experience. Based on the 1991 film of the same name, it had its first limited run off-Broadway for two months in 2012, with subsequent mountings in London, Australia and around the U.S. It's now the final production of the current 25th season of SpeakEasy Stage Company. With Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and Book by Peter Duchan, it won the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical, with several nominations for other awards by the Outer Critics, Drama Desk and Drama League. (It also featured the talented Annaleigh Ashford, who would go on to win Tony Awards for Kinky Boots and You Can't Take It with You in subsequent Broadway seasons). It's a boy-rates-girl story that successfully stakes out terrain not often covered by theater, especially the musical kind. Its time frame precedes the era of political correctness, thereby turning a mirror on our innermost darker side as it courageously portrays a not-that-long-ago heated milieu drastically in need of some climate change.

It's 1967 and a marine named Eddie Birdlace (Jordan J. Ford) is on a bus to San Francisco, which triggers a flashback to his first arrival in the city four years prior, specifically the night before JFK was to be assassinated. Eddie was accompanied by his fellow marines, Boland (Jared Troilo) and Bernstein (Drew Arisco) who plan to spend their last night stateside playing a game called Dogfight. The winner will be the guy who brings the ugliest girl to a party (a true tradition for the Marines, we learn). In a diner, Birdlace finds a shy plain-looking waitress, Rose (Alejandra M. Parrilla), and invites her to be his date. After she accepts, he starts to have second thoughts, but they end up at the party where Rose learns the truth about the game from Boland's date Marcy (McCaela Donovan). Infuriated and hurt, she slaps Birdlace and leaves. Later, repentant, he asks her out again and she forgives him, allowing him to stay the night. The flashback ends and Birdlace, with harsh memories of the Vietnam war, seeks out an older and wiser Rose at the diner, as he sings “Take Me Back”.

That's about it, in a nutshell, yet there's so much more to be gleaned from this production. As Directed by Artistic Director Paul Daigneault, with his usual gift for capturing the essence of a musical, aided by fine Music Direction by Jose Delgado and Choreography by Larry Sousa, it's a small but powerful gem. In the winning ensemble are a Lounge Singer (Patrick Varner, who also plays the parts of Pete, a drag queen, a diner patron, a waiter, and Big Tony), Stevens (Dylan James Whelan), Fector (Dave Heard), Mama as well as Suzette/Hippie (Liliane Klein), Gibbs as well as Steven's Party Date (Edward Rubenacker), and Ruth Two Bears as well as a Librarian, Chippy and Hippie (Jenna Lea Scott). Parrilla and Ford are entirely believable, with both effective acting and singing, and could hardly be improved upon as each grows, especially the unexpected strength of Parrilla's character. Donovan steals several scenes she's in, as does Varner. The technical team are all in fine form, from Scenic Designer Cristina Todesco's spare but versatile set, to Costume Designer Elisabetta Polito's spot-on attire reflecting the changes in the sixties, Lighting Designer Jeff Adelberg's well coordinated work and Sound Designer David Reiffel's contributed background. The score is pleasant and evocative of the times, if perhaps not as varied as it might have been.

Despite what might well be the least politically incorrect title around, Dogfight emerges as what can only be described with an often over-used term, yet exact here, truly bittersweet. Not unlike its heroine and hero, it's a wondrous way to spend an evening, even if we know more than they do about what history will do to them. This show will soon be a memory as well, so catch it while you can before it too disappears like the one-night stand it portrays. Seize the moment, as this will be sure to become one of your most emotionally moving and perhaps even life-changing theatrical experiences. It's a heartbreaking yet life-affirming musical treasure, like the encounter between the two leads, full of unexpected promise.

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