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‘Dogfight’ at The Keegan Theatre

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A trip to the Keegan Theatre is a must for they are now presenting the first collaboration of the dynamic songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul—namely, the musical Dogfight (based on the popular cult film of 1991 starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor and a critically-acclaimed Off-Broadway hit). It will be very easy for any audience to use the film as a reference for this production has a very cinematic, fluid and photogenic look and sweep to it.

 Tiziano D'Affuso (foreground) with cast. Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.

Tiziano D’Affuso (foreground) with cast. Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.

Bravos are in order for Co-Directors Christina A. Coakley and Michael Innocenti as this entire production is obviously directed with very fine, strong coordination and control. The pitch-perfect blocking, the efficiency and unobtrusiveness of all logistics and the overall cohesive tone of this production (not easy in a show with so many shifts of tone –from tender to brusque to slightly comic) — are testament to the skill of these two fine Directors.

Compelling, well-constructed music is the drawing card here. Songwriters Pasek and Paul have just astounded area audiences with their compelling score in Dear Evan Hansen (which played at the Arena Stage to great acclaim) and, now, local audiences are blessed to once again hear the marvelous first score from this amazing songwriting team in Keegan’s very professional and polished production.

Musical Direction by Jake Null is exceptional and the musicians Jaime Ibacache, Jason Wilson, Alex Aucoin, Helen Cunningham, and Katie Chambers play to perfection. The eclectic musical numbers are extremely well-integrated and seem to serve as a sort of continual soundtrack of repeated musical motifs to the story while, concurrently, serving to enhance the more  “character-driven” aspects of the more specific songs by Pasek and Paul.

Soaring melodies and a sense of yearning romance are indeed the hallmarks of this highly original musical  Co-Directors Christina A. Coakley and Michael Innocenti have taken hold of this somewhat conventional story and emboldened it with a highly distinctive and decidedly unconventional directorial flair. This very bold and distinctive style of directing —-characters entering and exiting with subtle yet efficient regularity while songs are in play, one scene and/or one song emerges into the next with utter simplicity and fluidity, characters thrust at the extreme front of the stage in an almost “in –your-face” style—-only serves to further enhance the dual layers of the story

On one hand, this musical would  appear to be the story of a trio of hardened Marines who enlist a mean bet that one of them will date the most  awkward and supposedly “ugly” woman at a Dance (thus, collecting all the wagered money). This would not seem like playable fare —especially in today’s social climate. Yet, the Book by Peter Duchan is very strong in that it creates a period piece while, simultaneously, utilizing flashbacks and foreshadowing to give the book a contemporary feel. (The stunning yet very functional set replete with two sets of stairs, scaffolding and walkways reminded me of the wonderful relatively recent musical Next to Normal—kudos to Scenic Design by Michael Keenan).

This musical also reminded me a bit of Paddy Chayefsky’s film Marty and –also—had shades, at times—- of West Side Story with the break-out exuberant style of dancing and the songs of romantic yearning such as Isabelle (Izzy) Smelkinson’s (Rose’s) rendition of the paean to  pleasure “Nothing Short of Wonderful”. Indeed, one main point of the musical is that true love and feelings transcend appearance.

Yet something more is going on here in this audaciously confident and assured production. The horrors of war and the endurance of human beings to withstand emotional pain seem to encapsulate the love story like a well-fitting glove. The characters in this Book by Duchan (so well above the standard Book of a musical) and the songs written by Pasek and Paul (so edgy and full of robust verve) underscore the fact that these characters are all emotional survivors regardless of external circumstances. Pain is made palpable and bearably poignant by sheer perseverance.

The entire set of songs is extremely character-driven. Luckily, the actors possess fine singing voices and, consequently, the entire show works well on both acting and musical levels. The entire ensemble works together as one cohesive whole.

Harrison Smith, David Landstrom, and Tiziano D'Affuso. Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.

Harrison Smith, David Landstrom, and Tiziano D’Affuso. Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.

As the lead character, Birdlace, Tiziano D’Affuso plays the hell out of his part. D’Affuso commands the stage with an authoritative yet unstudied and natural stage presence. D’Affuso combines a very masculine presence with just the right amount of requisite sensitivity needed for the part. Opening with a somber, embittered prologue, D’Affuso flashes back to the past and transitions before our eyes as the cocky hell-raising Marine soldier only to subtly segue way into the romantic seducer. He is especially effective when singing the amusingly casual song “First Date, Last Night” with Rose (Izzy Smelkinson) and he tears the roof off the Theater when he sings the forceful and explosive “Come Back.”

As the painfully shy and sensitive Rose, Isabelle (Izzy) Smelkinson is captivatingly awkward and anguished as her character dictates (but she could play the part just a bit less broadly and stolidly). Smelkinson’s prize asset is her vocal prowess. Her singing is a joy and a privilege to hear. Her resonant chest tones are thrilling to hear as she peers over the city lights of San Francisco and tries to catch every precious immediate moment in Pasek and Paul’s breathtakingly beautiful song “Before It’s Over.” Smelkinson’s portrayal of dramatic, painful realization that she has been the victim of a cruel bet —namely,  Pasek and Paul’s complex song “Pretty Funny” is an emotional powerhouse.

In the supporting but very vital role of Marci, Dani Stoller is a comic revelation. Stoller captures all the very real yet slightly offbeat humor of her character with split-second timing, and almost steals the show in her duet (with Smelkinson) about the harsh realities of the world—-the hard-hitting  and yet wry “It’s A Dogfight.”

Wonderfully sturdy and natural supporting performances are turned in by Harrison Smith (Boland) and David Landstrom (Bernstein). This is no small achievement considering the fact that they are on stage for almost half of the play! Their vocal and acting skills are top-notch! Both Landstrom and Smith punch up their physical movements with gusto and verve. They seem to have an intuitive understanding of the alternately bouncy, jazzy, theatrical, and explosive feel of Pasek and Paul’s music.

Choreography by Kurt Boehm is simply stunning with virtuosic and robust syncopated yet virile movement —especially when the ensemble kicks into high gear in the combustive “Some Kinda Time” and “Hometown Hero’s Ticker-Tape Parade.”

Isabelle Smelkinson and Dani Stoller. Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.

Isabelle Smelkinson and Dani Stoller. Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.

Lighting Design by Colin Dieck is sublime and inventive from the flashy neon of the city’s nightlife to the sensitive lighting of the romantic pair at dinner to the extremely inventive lighting of the entire Theater when a discussion of Vietnam ensues (thus, making the audience complicit? Thus, implicating the audience?–).

Costume Design by Jesse Shipley is creative, sartorially smart, and entirely appropriate for the period.

At this production, I felt like I was witnessing a “turning point” in the trajectory of The Keegan Theatre. Keegan Theatre has delivered an extremely professional “tour-de-force” in their production of Dogfight. For an emotional, exciting and mature evening of theatre, do not miss this exceptional production of Dogfight!

Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission.

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Dogfight plays through September 19, 2015 at The Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

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