My students at the Boston Conservatory are always looking for new songs to add to their "rep" books: basically three-ring binders filled with sheet music that they use for auditions, singing engagements, party sing-alongs and whatnot. In an effort to avoid the same songs that everybody else wants to sing ("I Dreamed a Dream," "Defying Gravity," "Over the Rainbow," etc.), the students frequently include selections from up-and-coming songwriters, folks whose work hasn't made it big on Broadway yet, but who have developed a certain cult following, such as Scott Alan, Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, and John Bucchino.
Another member of this crowd of emergent artists has been the team of Pasek and Paul, comprising Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, whose work includes James and the Giant Peach, Edges, and A Christmas Story, which will appear on Broadway later this year. I saw James and the Giant Peach a few years back, and although I thought Pasek and Paul's score for that show was a bit generic, their lyrics were frequently clever and showed great promise.
Now we have Dogfight, the first Pasek and Paul show to find a significant berth in New York City, at the Second Stage Theatre. Based on the 1991 film of the same name, Dogfight tells the story of three marines who are about to ship off to Vietnam, but not before one last big bash in San Francisco in which the young men and their buddies hold a competition to see who can land the ugliest date. Things don't quite proceed as planned when the male lead starts to have second thoughts and begins to develop feelings his date.
Based on their work here, Pasek and Paul seem to have matured a great deal in their songwriting abilities since I saw James and the Giant Peach in 2010. The Dogfight score is lively and fresh, although there are just a few too many flashes of Sondheim. Dogfight is set in 1963, but Pasek and Paul seem less concerned with evoking the feel of the music of the time than with creating a musical vocabulary for their characters. The songs reflect a deft touch with both rousing group numbers and introspective ballads, including a remarkably touching number at the very end of act one for the female lead, in which she sadly berates both the young man who has hurt her and herself for allowing herself to get hurt.
The book by Peter Duchan is both efficient and neatly paced, with a strong sense of individual characterization, although there was a bit of fuzziness as to the time frame as the show progressed. (Is this all supposed to be happening on the same night? On a series of nights?) Director Joe Mantello confirms here that his forte lies in taking rich material and finding the emotional layers contained within (e.g. Other Desert Cities, Assassins) rather than in staging knockabout farce (The Ritz) or mindless musical comedy (9 to 5). And choreographer Christopher Gattelli reminds us here that he's eminently capable of crafting infectious, energetic dance that's also firmly tied to the dramatic necessity of the piece, rather than overly repleat with crowd-pleasing showboating acrobatics (Newsies).
Among the major assets of the current production of Dogfight are the talented and appealing cast of some of the best young performers currently working in New York. Chief among these assets is the wonderful Lindsay Mendez as Rose Fenny, the female lead. Mendez was only able to hint at what she was truly capable of in the recently closed revival of Godspell. Here Mendez feels so genuine that your heart breaks along with hers when she discovers what the marines are really up to. Mendez proved in Godspell that she can really "belt her face," as my students are fond of putting it. Here, she shows that she's much more than just a powerful singer. She's a hell of an actress as well. In the supporting cast, standouts include Nick Blaemire and Josh Segarra as two of the male lead's marine buddies, as well as the wonderfully protean Annaleigh Ashford, who couldn't have been more different here from how she was as Maureen in the Off Broadway revival of Rent. A remarkable performer, well worth looking out for.
The one major hole in the cast for me was Derek Klena in the role of Eddie Birdlace, the young man who breaks Rose's heart then attempts to make amends. Klena was palpably awkward in the role. Yes, the role is supposed to be awkward, but from Klena it felt more like the awkwardness of trying to appear awkward. Klena recently played a rather bland Tommy in the Off Broadway revival of Carrie, but the material certainly wasn't doing him any favors. Here, in far superior material, Klena only comes off well when he's singing, particularly in a positively soaring 11 o'clock number that Eddie sings when he gets back from his tour in Vietnam. Klena has a remarkably strong, clean voice, and he really belted this number out of the park.
Might Dogfight end up on Broadway? I haven't heard any specific discussions yet, but the reviews were strong enough that I can't imagine someone's not at least considering it. I mean, if Broadway can embrace such serious, intimate musicals as Next to Normal and Once, couldn't there be a place there for Dogfight as well? If not, this is still a musical that can look forward to a significant afterlife in regional theaters. The show has a future, and its creators certainly do as well.