On the town

Hayes Theatre Co, May 7

IN February 2012 The New York Times published a short article about Dogfight, which would have its Off-Broadway premiere six months later at Second Stage Theater. This is how Patrick Healy’s report ended: “… Lincoln Center Theater originally commissioned and developed the musical but passed on producing it because the show became too large in scale for the space intended.” One has to assume the production was slated for one of Lincoln Center’s smallest performance halls, either the one seating 300 or the other with 130 seats, rather than the Vivian Beaumont, which has nearly 1100 seats.

Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co, with its 110 seats, proves, however, that small is perfect for Dogfight. Neil Gooding’s production doesn’t go soft on the macho posturing that kick starts and punctuates the action but neither is it exalted and glorified – always a possibility if there’s a big cast, lots of room for exuberant choreography and plenty of budget. It’s easy to glamorise bad behaviour if you put enough resources behind it.

Rowan Witt, Luigi Lucent and Toby Francis. Photo: Noni Carroll

Luigi Lucente, Rowan Witt and Toby Francis. Photo: Noni Carroll

Set in 1963, Dogfight takes its name from a deeply unsavoury challenge played by the military: put in some money in the pot, find an unattractive woman to take to a party, see whose date is judged the ugliest, and bingo! We have a winner. (The musical is based on the 1991 film of the same name.) The heedless cruelty and blood-chilling contempt for women are breathtaking.

But not only did their fathers bring these young men up this way, they’re also embedded in a ferociously masculine and controlling culture. The men in Dogfight are Marines, poised to go a country they’ve barely heard of and couldn’t find on a map. That would be Vietnam. They think they’ll be back soon after an easy tour of duty; we know they won’t. You would have to be made of stone not to feel some sympathy for these emotionally stunted boys as well as despair at their callousness.

Then one of the lads, Eddie Birdlace (Luigi Lucente) meets Rose (Hilary Cole), folk guitar-playing waitress and the show’s moral centre. Eddie is, like all these men, a persuasive bullshitter, particularly attractive to a young woman who doesn’t get out much. He knows how to reel her in, and why not? She is an honest, truthful person who pays Eddie the honour of believing what he says. Well, she doesn’t believe the crap he spouts about music but the rest sounds persuasive. The love story that emerges tentatively, thanks to Rose’s goodness and guts, is gentle and kind even as Lucente and Cole spark satisfyingly off one another. The little-bit-shy, little-bit-sexy bedroom scene is a delight.

Dogfight’s 1960s-style pop, rock and folk score (music and lyrics are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) colours and anchors the landscape just as it should. The music lets you know where you are, with whom and why, a state not always achieved in the music-theatre field, even though you would think it’s non-negotiable.

Director Gooding has gathered a terrific ensemble, including Toby Francis and Rowan Witt as Eddie’s closest mates. Witt’s lightning transformation from likeable nerd to momentarily violent aggressor is one of the musical’s most sobering and lasting images, Johanna Allen gives hooker Marcy a ballsy combination of pragmatism and anger, and Mark Simpson does wonders of differentiation with seven small roles. In do-it-yourself style everyone efficiently moves simple pieces of furniture around in James Browne and Georgia Hopkins’s fluid versatile set that quickly establishes a scene and equally quickly changes it.

The evening isn’t without a few niggles. One simply has to understand that Cole has been cast for her voice (splendid) and acting ability (ditto) and not for any lack of personal attraction. The daggy attire (costumes by Elizabeth Franklin) helps only very slightly. In fact, Cole looks rather sweet in her ruffled party frock. As usual, the sound quality at the Hayes can be less than optimal at times but the small band under the charge of Isaac Hayward does a feisty job. And finally, Peter Duchan’s book brings Dogfight to a surprisingly abrupt end, which robs the heart-tugging resolution of some of its effect. Still, while it gives audiences the hopeful ending most people crave, you can’t accuse Dogfight of easy sentimentality. Better this way than the syrupy song others might have thought appropriate at this point.

When in New York recently I saw the rollicking revival of the 1944 musical On the Town, which follows the fortunes over one night of three sailors on leave. In the morning they are shipping out to war but in the meantime they want to find a girl. The echoes in Dogfight are strong: a trio of young men with animal high spirits, a deep friendship, a thing for the ladies and the spectre of imminent departure to war. Dogfight is set just shy of 20 years later than On the Town but the gulf is enormous in its depiction of how certain men feel about women. The innocent hijinks of On the Town seemed a very, very long way away.

Until May 31 at Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney.

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