Dogfight review (Hayes Theatre)

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Musical theatre has got to be the hardest performing art form to get right. I mean, to really get right. It has an extraordinary number of elements which need to be perfectly balanced and shaped into a dramatically satisfying piece of theatre, which is perhaps why it’s been so conservative (in terms of form and structure) for the last 30 years. Reinventing the wheel is near impossible, so if you really have something you want to say, or a story you want to tell in a musical, you’re probably best to stick fairly closely to the formula.

Dogfight, with a book by Peter Duchan and a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, premiered in New York in 2012, and is one of those rare musicals that gets basically everything right (with the possible exception of a slightly rushed ending). Why does it work? Although it has a contemporary tone and tough subject matter, it’s a tenderly, expertly, classically-structured piece at core. And the songs arise naturally from the action and inform it perfectly (that they’re memorable and instantly infectious is just an added bonus).

It’s 1963 and Marine Eddie Birdlace (Luigi Lucente), and his two best friends Bernstein (Rowan Witt) and Boland (Toby Francis), are in San Francisco on a mission. They’re being shipped out to Vietnam tomorrow morning, but first they have to track down the ugliest girl they can find for a military tradition — a party called the Dogfight. They all put in $50 and the Marine who shows up with the most hideous girl wins the sweepstakes.

Eddie eventually stumbles into a diner where he finds a young, funny-looking waitress Rose Fenny (Hilary Cole) and sets about seducing her to attend the party. Rose is thrilled to be invited out on her very first date, having no clue about the true nature of the party. But over the course of the night the relationship between Rose and Eddie changes and there’s a connection which takes them both by surprise.

The book, adapted from a 1991 film written by Bob Comfort, is at its best when it explores the subtly shifting, awkward and funny relationship between the unlikely pair. And it’s performed with great nuance and detail by Hilary Cole and Luigi Lucente, who are perfectly matched and generate a hell of a lot of electricity in the intimate Hayes space, as they throw ideas back and forth and learn about each other.

Director Neil Gooding has clearly articulated their journey — there’s an extraordinary reversal which takes place. At first, Rose needs Eddie’s approval, but by the end of the night that’s completely turned around and he’s desperate for Rose’s forgiveness and compassion, which is far more powerful than his cruelty.

Pasek and Paul’s score is just as engrossing, with the best of 1960s rock in the opening numbers Some Kinds Time and Hey Good-Lookin’, and ’60s folk in Rose’s songs Give Way and Pretty Funny. There are also notable Sondheim influences in the way lyrical ideas are connected (although almost every musical theatre composer post-Sondheim has Sondheim influences).

It’s brought to life with verve and versatility by musical director Isaac Hayward and his small band. Although some of the ensemble numbers aren’t perfectly balanced in the sound mix, the duets and solos sound glorious in the space.

Cole steals the show in her musical numbers, particularly the heart-breaking, bittersweet Pretty Funny, and her fiery, show-stopping duet Dogfight, with Johanna Allen as Marcy, the sex worker who demands control of her own fate. There’s no pause after that number for applause, but on the night I attended the audience insisted on showing their approval. Cole’s voice is an extraordinary instrument, in moments delicate and lithe, but with enough power to push you back in your seat.

Lucente has fewer moments to impress vocally, but his final number Come Back is full of intensity and gorgeously sung, as he suffers from the horrors of wars and struggles to grow up as quickly as he’s required to.

Cole and Lucente are able to shine so brightly because the entire production around them is first rate, including fine supporting performances; from Rowan Witt and Toby Francis’ boyish but brutish Marines to Johanna Allen’s Marcy, which begins as something of a caricature before taking on darker and more real resonances. The set, by James Browne and Georgia Hopkins, is made up of a few diner-style chairs and two platforms, which are rolled around the stage, transforming the space into different locations instantly. Ross Graham and Alex Berlage’s lighting design is equally effective and transformative.

The musical generated a small controversy when it premiered in London last year. Amongst many rave reviews, there were several which objected to the misogynistic material. It’s true that the writers never work to condemn the young men for their disgusting, lecherous actions — they leave that to the audience. Frankly, drama is never all that compelling or surprising when artists have cast explicit judgement over their subjects, and it’s difficult to read Dogfight as an endorsement of the misogynistic actions which have been a huge part of military culture around the world for centuries. Its exploration of that culture (a culture which we know continues in many ways) is astute, and often too close for comfort.

It’s so satisfying and rare to see a piece of musical theatre done so well, which makes Dogfight a genuine must-see. This is amongst the best work to come out of the Hayes in its short life — it’s certainly the most confident.

[box]Dogfight is at the Hayes Theatre, Sydney until May 31. Featured image by Noni Carroll[/box]

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