| Theater |

Dogfight's Sweetness, Energy and Vocals Lift it Above the Cliché

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At WaterTower Theatre, time shifts to 1964 in San Francisco. Young Marines head out onto the town before they're shipped off to a growing war in Southeast Asia. They are looking for a good time, hounding for women. Eddie Birdlace happens upon Rose, a young musician working a late-night shift at a small diner. They strike up a flirtatious debate about Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, in which she schools him. But she imagines him in a uniform and can't resist the invitation to a party.

This is the premise of Dogfight. What Rose doesn't know yet is that Eddie has struck up a bet with his buddies that he can bring the ugliest girl to the party. And he's picked her.

Dogfight is the most beautiful musical you will see in Dallas this year. What turns out to be the most backward Prince Charming story doubles as a poignant metaphor for the Vietnam War. And the strong ensemble makes it personal and heartbreaking.

The play opens with the bet. Eddie (a charming Zak Reynolds) and Boland (Kyle Igneczi) and Bernstein (Matt Ransdell Jr.) sing a song of solidarity -- of friendship -- about the impending hours. "Some Kind of Time" is a buddy anthem at its best and a shining example of '60s misogyny at its worst. As they dream of ruling the evening, the words are not so far removed from a mature, despicable version of Simba's "I Just Can't Wait to be King." The words are begging for just one night of controlled revelry.

"We're gonna run the streets and find some trouble, One last night we don't forget Drink so deep we're seeing double, One last night with no regret."

The highly melodious soundtrack with thoughtful lyrics written in perfect rhymes resembles the work of Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years) and seems too mawkishly sweet to be sung by aggressive Marines out for a sloppy drunk night. And that seems to be exactly the point that Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are making -- these dudes are jerks and we don't excuse their behavior, but let's explore some alternatives. In his New York Times review, Ben Brantley said, "Dogfight proceeds in a melancholy, tuneful and slightly hesitant trickle that seems to be apologizing for any unpleasantness." Certainly, when it comes to the more sorrowful songs, particularly when Rose sings, there is an ache in every note.

And it's Rose's longing for a better world that pulls the show along, offering the best argument that perhaps the entire show can be interpreted as metaphor for the way that the United States bought into the Vietnam War. After all, when you're fed myth after myth or compliment after compliment -- who are you supposed to believe?

It's Juliette Talley -- the actress playing Rose -- who gives this production legs. Even as both the story and the music grow vaguely redundant (it's 2 1/2 hours of Rose coming to terms with hurt feelings), Talley's hopeful charm and sweet, silky vocals pull it along. She will break your heart when she sings, "Pretty Funny," in which she first comes to terms with the mess of a first date. She's Cinderella home from the ball, wearing a ball gown that doesn't look good on her. And you'll want to run onstage and give her a big hug.

This thread of naivety runs through the entire play, with the gymnastic choreography by John De Los Santos giving it an irresistible energy. It's a fairly unrealistic story -- particularly the storybook ending -- pulled together with such finesse by director Terry Martin and the cast that it's easy to ignore the military stereotypes, romantic cliches and repetitive music and instead buy into the sweet love story of Dogfight.

Dogfight continues at WaterTower Theatre in Addison through August 17.

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