Lights up on a familiar metropolitan scene. At the top of the show, we find ourselves immersed in an industrial dream of sorts, the creative brainchild of Don Swenson, with a collage of different scenes: Rose’s Coffee Shop, the Tattoo Parlor, a small bedroom, a public restroom, and most predominantly: the bus station. Dogfight, an early work of the masterminds behind Dear Evan Hansen and A Christmas Story, begins the same way that it ends: a journey back home.
Dogfight, the musical’s source material and the 1991 movie starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor, has been described before as a tone-deaf story about a meek girl who is essentially saved by a hot military man. While, at its core, this statement isn’t completely incorrect about the musical either, with a book by Peter Buchan and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the current Eagle Theatre production of the musical breathes new life and relevance into the story of Eddie Birdlace and his “three bees.” In today’s normal where innocence is quickly lost and death is romanticized through Netflix shows and young adult novels, this musical transports us back to a time where young men truly thought that they’d be their “hometown hero” if they just did their time in the armed forces. Simple right? Well, we’ll get there.
The Eagle’s production is so perfectly heartbreaking from start to finish. From the moment you walk into the theatre, you are transported back to 1963. The set design is dynamic. Brittany Graham’s costume design, while mostly simple, meshed wonderfully into director Ed Corsi’s world. However, I think the greatest achievement of this specific production is casting (well, mostly).
Sal Pavia as Eddie Birdlace is a dream. Pavia, who described himself at bows as a frequent performer at the Eagle (lucky them), is the perfect leading man for this show: a great voice, a brilliant actor, and last but certainly not least, a killer leading lady. In addition to starring in Dogfight, Pavia also created its choreography, which overall felt jarring and out place when dance was incorporated. Anabelle Szepietowski, while perhaps not the typical choice for the character of Rose, is compelling from the first moment she picks up her guitar. Her voice is all the beauty of a Lindsay Mendez belt and a Jessie Mueller gentle twang. The chemistry between the two is endearing and kept me rooting for them the entire time.
They are joined by a rock-star ensemble consisting of Ronnie Keller, Bobby Walker and Sean C. White as Eddie’s gaggle of militant douchebags accompanied by Brooke Ariel and Amanda Spivack, as their dates for the “dogfight,” the story’s central plot point where men bet money on who can bring the ugliest date to the club. I especially enjoy Spivack’s portrayal of Ruth Two Bears, she quickly steals the scene with comedic elegance. Joe Canuso and Brian Keith Graziani as Birdlace’s ride-or-die buddies offers a beautiful contrast to Eddie’s evolving attitude regarding the abuse of women and the realities of war. The supporting cast also includes Rebecca Kraink as Marcy and Deirdre Donohue as Mama. Kraink, while she sings well, doesn’t offer much when it comes to portraying the gritty, street-smart Marcy. Donohue as Mama seems out of place. The choice to cast a Mama who looks the same age as Rose does not pan out well in this iteration of Dogfight.
The Eagle continues to incorporate impressive technical elements in their small, yet versatile space. Their use of this multilevel, conceptual set was notable. The audience enjoys automated booths and entrance ways, which adds a cleanness to the show’s aesthetic…when they work properly. Lighting, designed by Chris Miller, is sharp, but the night that I went there were so many cue errors that many of the actors in the beginning of the performance weren’t lit whatsoever. Scenes would go by with actors completely in the dark. The lighting team won me back with a very convincing war sequence, completed with strobe and some fantastic sound elements, designed by David Pierron. As men fall and tragedy comes to the forefront through the work of Eagle’s well-rounded production team, it’s really hard to keeps the tears from flowing.
I was worried how this iteration of Dogfight would would fend without it’s usual automated turntable for numbers like, “First Date/Last Night.” I think given the limitations of Eagle’s size, the choice to add two passerelles as a compromise was a smart move. The Eagle seems to have a good grasp on where to dish out the big bucks (well, again, mostly). The wigs in this specific production were pretty poorly constructed, looking about as good as what they were probably worth.
Overall, the quality of this show is outstanding. When I went, the house was about halfway full which I thought was a great shame. Dogfight runs through December 8. Let’s face it, a $40 ticket to see a Pasek and Paul musical that originally starred Lindsay Mendez and Derek Klena is a steal. You will laugh, cry, and fall in love. I am sure of it.
Photos by Brian Morris