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.

Truth, beauty and a picture of you

Neil Gooding Productions with Hayes Theatre Co

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, May 14

STEWIE was a mid-level musician in a low-level band, according to Anton. Anton was also in the band, which means he’s paying Stewie a compliment of sorts: the guy was an okay musician. Stewie is dead now, Anton is going to seed, the other band member, Charlie, is going to hell via the pokies and Stewie’s now-adult son has turned up from Taree trying to fill a gap in his life.

Ian Stenlake, Toby Francis and Scott Irwin. Photo: Noni Carroll

Ian Stenlake, Toby Francis and Scott Irwin. Photo: Noni Carroll

You couldn’t call it an original idea but Truth, beauty and a picture of you dangles possibilities. Male friendship, disappointment and loss will be explored in the pungent context of a pub band of limited success and there’s a huge plus: Truth, beauty is based around exceptionally beautiful songs written by Tim Freedman, he of The Whitlams.

So what went wrong?

As so often with a new musical we must look to the book, the spine of narrative that gives a show shape, texture, direction and purpose. Truth, beauty’s book, credited to Alex Broun and Freedman, is a mighty thin affair that skitters from song to song via cliché and dialogue of often painful obviousness.

It fails to establish what was supposedly a deep connection between the three band mates – there are a couple of flashbacks to the early 1990s – while noodling around rather tiresomely with young newcomer Tom and a girl who picks him up in Sydney’s Newtown. Ross Chisari and Erica Lovell do their best to animate stale material and are terrific singers but this thread isn’t interesting. Tom is a device, the catalyst for an unsurprising revelation.

Toby Francis emerges every now and again as Stewie, plays a few other characters and is not well used but Ian Stenlake (Anton) and Scott Irwin (Charlie) do heroic work to transcend the plot’s limitations. They are very fine, as is designer James Browne’s evocation of a grungy pub in a raffish place.

The big drawcard of course is the songs Freedman wrote or co-wrote. To hear, among others, Been Away Too Long, Beauty in Me, I will Not Go Quietly and No Aphrodisiac performed so passionately by the cast and Andrew Worboys’s terrific band is to understand perfectly why Broun wanted to build a musical around them. Unfortunately there’s still a long way to go.