Dogfight in LA Review - A Journey Back to the 60's

Adapted from Nancy Savocas’s 1991 film “Dogfight,” starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul added music and – voila – DOGFIGHT, the musical, was born. DOGFIGHT premiered off Broadway in 2012 to rave reviews and has since been produced around the U.S. and abroad. Almost 25 years later, Pasek and Paul found Hollywood fame for the 2016 Academy Award nominee, “La La Land.” Based on the book by Peter Duchan with music and lyrics by Pasek and Paul, DOGFIGHT returns to Los Angeles at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre in Hollywood.

The Company of the After Hours Theatre Company in Dogfight - Photo by Nicole Priest

DOGFIGHT delves into 1960’s socio-cultural issues as it follows a group of young and feisty U.S. Marines getting set for their deployment to Vietnam. It’s November 21, 1963 (the day before President John F. Kennedy’s assassination), and  the “three Bees,” Corporal Eddie Birdlace (Payson Lewis) and his buddies Boland (Spencer Strong Smith) and Bernstein (Trent Mills) , decide to paint the town of San Francisco red in one final “boy’s night out” before going to war.

Nicci Claspell and Payson Lewis - Photo by Nicole Priest

Partying, lots of liquor, and debauchery will surround these tough guys as they play “dogfight,” a cruel betting game in which each puts $50 in the pot to be won by the guy who brings the ugliest female he can find to the party – and winner takes all.  As Eddie scours San Francisco for his contest entry, he wanders into a diner; and there she is - Rose Fenny (Nicci Caspell), a shy, innocent waitress who has never been on a date. Off to the party they go, even as Eddie begins to question his involvement in this degrading and humiliating ritual for women.

Spencer Strong Smith and Emily Morris - Photo by Nicole Priest

But this is the 60’s, and the times, they are a-changing. The boys are off to battle, but it turns out to be different than what they expected in Vietnam. Rather than fun and games, this is a real-life fight with real people dying around them. San Francisco is changing too, as hippy kids dance through Haight-Ashbury with flowers in their hair and a profound hatred for war…and warriers. The role of females is changing too, and even Rose can morph into a powerful yet compassionate woman.

Spencer Strong Smith, Payson Lewis, and Trent Mills - Photo by Nicole Priest

Elmo Zapp’s musical direction is superb and blends perfectly with Jennifer Oundjian’s choreography as the principals sing and dance their way through the production. Particularly effective is a Vietnam battle scene which was beautifully choreographed. Co-directors Oundjian and Jennifer Stratten imbue DOGFIGHT with compassion and concern, and the actors respond with skill. This professional cast offers up some fine melodies, great pipes, and awesome dance moves which will delight every audience. Especially during the second act, each character manages to exhibit pathos appropriate to his role, with Payson Lewis deserving special kudos. Did I mention that there is a six-piece band backing up those lilting voices?

The Company - Photo by Nicole Priest

Justin Ryan Brown’s simple set is augmented effectively by Andrew Schmedake’s lighting and Julia Pinhey’s sound. Julius Bronola’s costumes, Ariana Castigilia’s hair design, and Shen Heckel’s props bring the audience back to the heart of the 60’s. This is a fun show – but also has an educational and socio-cultural element as it presents people’s thinking nearly 60 years ago.

DOGFIGHT runs through June 25, 2017, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 7 p.m. on Sundays. The Hudson Mainstage Theatre is located at 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, CA. Tickets are $40. For information and reservations, go online.   


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