Having reviewed “Spring Awakening,” Eclipse’s hit summer show last year, I had high expectations that its current production, “Dogfight,” another musical, would match the quality of its predecessor. I am happy to report that I was not disappointed when I saw it Friday at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre. Eclipse is Summer Stock Stage‘s emerging artists program that provides paid performance opportunities for Central Indiana artists who are young professionals and college students who also happen to be SSS alumni. Consummately directed by SSS co-founder Emily Ristine Holloway, the show runs through June 17.
Considering the show’s introspective, often plaintive score is by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, two of America’s hottest songwriters (“Dear Evan Hansen,” “La La Land,” and “The Greatest Showman,”) I also expected the show’s music would give it a singular quality. Again, coupled with the fact the distinctive score was sung by performers with finely trained voices, my expectations were more than met.
The show’s book by Peter Duchan is an adaptation of Nancy Savoca’s 1991 film “Dogfight.” The musical premiered Off-Broadway in 2012. The story, which begins in 1967, depicts Eddie Birdlace (Patrick Dinnsen), a U.S. Marine returning from Vietnam, as he rides on a bus traveling to San Francisco. Throughout the journey, he recalls a night he spent there with Rose Fenney (Leela Rothenberg) four years earlier and is overwhelmed by his memories, shown in flashback. They include him and his two boisterous best buddies, Boland (Joey Mervis) and Bernstein (John Collins) in 1963, the night before their deployment to ‘Nam. Calling themselves the “Three Bees,” the reckless, macho trio of men sets out to engage in a dogfight, a cruel game that humiliates and demeans women. Eddie encounters Rose, an introverted waitress in a diner and asks her out on a date under the ruse that he will win a prize for bringing the ugliest date to a party set up by his buddies to compete for a $150 prize. What insensitive, clueless Eddie doesn’t realize is that he has met his match in spunky Rose, an idealistic pacifist, representing conscious-raised women of the 1960s, who teaches him a lesson about female strength and empowerment.
Rothenberg and Dinnsen, both Equity actors, were well cast and showed believable chemistry as the mismatched lovers. Both possessing excellent voices, they shined in duets of “Come to a Party,” and “First Date/Last Night” and individually in solos. Rothenberg was captivating in “Nothing Short of Wonderful” and “Before It’s Over” and Dinnsen was affecting in “Come Back.”
Also deserving of praise is Elizabeth Hutson as Marcy, the worldly, wise, toothless prostitute who schools Rose on Eddie’s real intentions in asking her out. Rothenberg and Hutson were particularly strong in their potent rendition of “Dogfight.”
The leads, as well as the multi-talented ensemble, skillfully executed Lily Wessel and Cherri Jaffee’s often robust choreography, especially the numbers danced by the Marines.
Making the most of the limited space of the intimate Basile is Simon Roberts’ resourceful set design that neatly encloses the production’s superb five-piece band, masterfully overseen by music director Jeanne Bowling.
The show’s first-rate lighting design created by Michael Moffatt was especially effective in scenes that conveyed a film-noir quality, as well as a chase lighting effect that was employed during a chilling battle scene.
Adding to the show’s admirable production values were Ben Dobler’s always-impeccable sound design and the work of costume designers Jeanne Bowling and Aaron Wardwell.
As a product of educational theatre, it warms my heart that Eclipse Theatre exists, not only to provide professional opportunities of such high caliber as “Dogfight,” but also to allow the public to witness the metamorphosis of young talent who represent a new generation of theatre artists. I can’t think of a more fulfilling, not to mention rewarding, exchange.
Tickets for the remaining shows cost$30. Visit summerstockstage.com. To watch a preview of “Dogfight,” visit the Summer Stock Stage YouTube channel. “Dogfight” includes mature content and strong language.