Dogfight is a drama that deals almost entirely with surfaces — surface beauty, surface values, surface concerns and surface victories. Taken on that level, the fine new mounting of the musical by the Red Branch Theatre Company is another amazing gift to playgoers from this most searching and socially engaged of small stage companies.
Based on a 1991 movie about a cruel Marine Corps rite-of-passage, the 2012 off-Broadway musical is, by turns, intimate, robust, touching, scrappy, sensitive and crude. The music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul and the book by Peter Duchan hardly ever flinch while following three gung-ho Jarheads through a cringe-inducing male-bonding excursion into the emotional minefield of female victimhood.
For once the cast at Red Branch is exactly the right age for a play that focuses on young men deep in their post-high school identity-crisis years. The three central buddies, played by Christian Hoff (Eddie), Solomon Parker III (Boland), and Javier del Pilar (Bernstein), are all instantly believable as high-spirited Marines.
Fresh from boot camp and filled with confidence, they dare not admit any private fears about being shipped into the unknown jungles of 1963 Viet Nam. “Some Kind of Time” they sing as they leap, kick, and gyrate on the eve of their great adventure.
Like generations of Marine fathers before them, they take part in a local military prank called a “dogfight.” Each Marine antes up $50 with the expectation that the one who brings the homeliest date to the farewell party wins the jackpot.
It’s not a contest designed to leave anyone covered in glory. But the authors are right to think it will kick up some high drama.
Eddie settles on a chubby wallflower waitress named Rose, who sings folk songs with her guitar and has never been on a date. She has strong opinions and endless idealism, however, so one sits back to wait for the fireworks.
Courtney Branch plays Rose with heartbreaking sweetness, tempering her vulnerability with a principled awareness. She wins the audience firmly to Rose’s side with a touching performance of the beautiful optimistic solo “Nothing Short of Wonderful.”
Director and Choreographer Stephanie Lynn Williams successfully switches gears with the raucous “Blast Off” dancehall contest. Comparing notes with the streetwise Marcy (Tierra NiCole), Rose uncovers the truth about the cruel way she has been used, and matters come to a violent head before Intermission.
Of course, it is the unthinking Eddie and the other young men who must be taken down a peg before all is resolved. That is when they see the shallow cruelty of the games being played, and perhaps learn that destiny can be the cruelest player of all.
While the director and her fine cast get all the pathos and sentiment from the material, some of its dramatic depths were not being sounded on opening weekend.
It would have heightened the tension, for instance, to glimpse something of the Marines’ self-doubts behind their bravado. Was not their dogfight a charade to defuse the fear of being seen with less-than-perfect dates?
More could have been made of Eddie’s last-minute change of heart over exposing Rose to ridicule. And what of the young women? Did they have to be dressed in fright wigs and dumpster fashions to convey the idea of them as social outcasts?
Otherwise, the performances are excellent throughout. In addition to the leads mentioned above, strong contributions are made by James Haberkamp, Jonathan Miot, Michael Nugent, Rick Westerkamp and Danie Rodriguez on the men’s side; and by Ellie Borzilleri, Erin Branigan, Hannah Fogler, and Kelsey Jenkins on the ladies’ side.
Both the dance moves and the psychological nuances appear to spring naturally from the characters. Musically, the harmonies are often a delight to the ear, with very few of the lyrics getting lost this time around at Red Branch.
Music Director Dustin Merrell and his live four-piece pit band are as refined or lively as they need to be, often sounding like a much larger professional ensemble.
The multi-level platform set by Scenic Designer Heidi Castle-Smith suggests the San Francisco cityscape and various barracks, restaurants and cheap dives without resorting to scene-changing delays.
Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin kept the drama running smoothly.
Dogfight is another bold choice for the Red Branch Theatre Company. With a rush of hummable tunes, rock-hard energy and bittersweet romance, it shows that cruelty has a face, sometimes an excuse, and hopefully a cure. Don’t miss it.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Dogfight plays through October 10, 2015 at Red Branch Theatre Company performing at the Drama Learning Center – 9130-I Red Branch Road, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 997-9352, or go purchase them online.