When you first read about the background of Dogfight you get a feeling that this is a musical that shouldn’t exist. It is based on the worst performing film of River Phoenix’s career, a film so maligned that it didn’t even make it to cinemas in some countries. Instead, it received the ill-fated ‘straight to video’ damnation.
Then there is the subject matter; a group of marines heading off to The Vietnam War hold a competition to see who can lure the ugliest girl they can find to a party; the winner receives a ‘bounty’. Even the thought of such a bet is grotesque and given the politically correct world we live in today, it is a wonder that Dogfight hasn’t been banished, never to be heard of again.
Yet, now having seen Dogfight as a theatrical musical I have to say that I am so glad that Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Peter Duchan have breathed musical life into this tale because on stage this becomes a story of regret, self-worth and overcoming what is expected of you.
Just like they did with ‘Dear Evan Hansen‘ and ‘The Greatest Showman‘, Pasek, Paul, and Duchan have created a musical that I now hold dear to my heart. One that had me searching within myself and regretting some of the mistakes that I have made in life.
The plot for the musical doesn’t stray too far from the film. Three best friends, Eddie (Daniel Nieborski), Bernstein (Tristan Sicari) and Boland (Josh Direen), arrive in San Francisco the night before they are shipped off to The Vietnam War. The three who call themselves ‘The Three B’s’ spruik bravado and it is obvious that they believe that nothing can harm them at all. Not on this night and certainly not while at war.
It is through a perverse game called a ‘dogfight’ that Eddie meets Rose (Antoinette Davis), a young waitress working in a diner. She becomes his ‘victim’, the ugly girl that he believes could win him the dogfight’s bounty. But as the night wears. on he soon realises that there is something more to Rose, especially her love for music, and soon he wishes that he hadn’t entered her into the dogfight but it’s too late to back out.
I found myself surprised with just how well the stage production of this story worked. Having watched the film only a few weeks ago I found the story very cold. To be honest, on-screen Lili Taylor doesn’t give the character of Rose justice but Antoinette Davis overturns that on stage, not only making Rose likable but giving her a little fight as well which drew me to her character even more.
Likewise, I found that Daniel Nieborski’s Eddie is a lot easier to understand. As I sat in the theatre, I realised that I understood his character’s motivations a little more. Maybe it was because I was sitting in the second row but I swear at times I could see Nieborski channelling Eddie’s self-doubt across his face for all to see.
I also feel that the music brought to life here by conductor Timothy John Wilson, brings more inner thought to the story than what was ever present on screen. Tracks like ‘Give Way’, ‘Come Back’ and ‘First Date/Last Night’ become open books for the characters and emotions while ‘Take Me Back’ is a sheer theatrical masterpiece that had me stunned in my seat.
While Nieborski and Davis’ voices were sheer delights, credit must also be paid to Madeline Pratt whose strong vocals on ‘It’s A Dogfight’ were one of the highlights of the night and this was enough to convince me that I will be seeing more of her in some bigger productions over the years to come.
There is simply so much that comes together to make Dogfight a theatrical pleasure. The set design by Yvonne Jin and Bianca Pardo transported me back to San Francisco in the 1960s, the comic timing of Ryan Etlis had me laughing out loud, while the brilliant performance of Josh Direen made me hate what humanity can do to each other.
Aside from all of that, there is also the fact that through the way the characters are portrayed, I have a better understanding of what life was like for my uncles who fought in The Vietnam War. Given that they seldom talk about it, this is probably the closest I will ever get to understanding the effect that Vietnam had on them.
Directed by Pip Mushin, with musical direction by Timothy John Wilson, and executive producer Andrew Gyopar, I highly recommend giving Dogfight a look. Yes, the film is not great and contains a questionable story, but the Theatrical.’s production brings the story to life in a whole new way that makes it much easier to understand and enjoy.
Theatrical.’s Dogfight is on at Melbourne’s Chapel Off Chapel until November 26.
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Photography by Nicole Cleary.