The dogs in SpeakEasy Stage’s compelling musical, DOGFIGHT (ending this weekend), aren’t the soldiers about to ship out for Viet Nam. They’re the unfortunate young women the sleazy marines have corralled for a nasty contest on their last night in the good old USA. Whoever brings the fattest/homeliest/ugliest woman to their party wins a whole pot of money. (I’m trying to squelch my revulsion over the premise of the story.) The musical is based on a film starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor.
DOGFIGHT does have an uplifting trajectory but before you get there, it’s mighty unpleasant watching women being degraded. As one of the “contestants” bravely asks when she discovers why they’re really there, “How do you let a bunch of jerks tell you this is how the world works?” The horror is that DOGFIGHT takes place in the ‘60s and despite our fight for women’s rights, the ERA failed to pass and we haven’t been able to change attitudes in the last fifty years: Large women are still stigmatized and as is clearly evident here, cast only in “large” roles. It’s rare to see a musical where the leading lady isn’t rail thin and Glamour Magazine-gorgeous. (Pity because all the lovely, talented women in the SpeakEasy show, no matter their size, could easily star in GUYS & DOLLS, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, RENT, SPRING AWAKENING, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, MARY POPPINS and on and on…)
Director Paul Daigneault adds his magic to Peter Duchan’s less than exciting book by making the characters matter (and the performances pop). Larry Souza devises one of the funniest dance sequences I’ve seen in a long while, when Drew Arisco’s marine coaxes Jenna Lea Scott’s catatonic Ruth Two Bears onto the dance floor for a rather one-sided two-step. Jose Delgado works miracles with the music: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s songs are mostly uninspired and don’t do anything to move the story along but Delgado’s singers deliver them with gusto.
The best moments in the show, aside from the burgeoning romance for Alejandra M. Parilla as Rose and Jordan J. Ford as Eddie, arise out of the comic scenes, like Patrick Varner’s hilariously over confidant lounge lizard; Then he tops that cameo, scoring as a snooty waiter just itching for comeuppance. McCaela Donovan, too, gets laughs as the hooker Jared Troilo’s arrogant soldier hires to rig the un-beauty contest, as does Edward Rubenacker as another unsuspecting dance date.
Daigneault gets fine work, too, from Dave Heard and Dylan James Whelan as loyal company marines and from Liliane Klein as Rose’s understanding mother (and a few more parts, to boot). The performances are definitely the reason to see DOGFIGHT. You won’t learn much about the Viet Nam era. What you do learn about the sixties from the musical is suspect. (The creators play fast and loose with the facts but that’s literary license, isn’t it?) Semper Fi, SpeakEasy!