Chicago Theatre Review
Next Stop: Viet Nam
Dogfight – Boho Theatre
Bringing another exciting season to a close, their 11th, BoHo Theatre presents the Off-Broadway musical hit about a trio of friends, about to be shipped off to serve in Viet Nam. The musical opens in 1967 as we find a shellshocked young man, Marine Private First Class Eddie Birdlace, traveling by bus back to San Francisco, where his journey began four years ago. Eddie is hoping to reunite and at least find some closure with Rose, the young woman who’s opened his eyes to the callous, casual cruelty that’s shaped his life thus far.
Back in 1963, on the eve of their deployment overseas, the Three Bees, as they call themselves (Birdlace, the crude Boland and the nerdy Bernstein) take part in a ritual called a dogfight. It’s a cruel, male-dictated amusement in which they, and their buddies, each put up fifty dollars for some disgusting fun. The men will search San Francisco for a “dog,” the ugliest girl they can find, to bring to a supposedly innocent party. The winner of this competition will win the entire pot of money and the honor of being dogfight champion.
Eddie wanders into a diner and, by chance, meets Rose, an innocent young woman working for her mother as a waitress. He charms Rose into accompanying him to “Come to a Party,” never realizing that she’s a contender to be named the homeliest woman in this anti-beauty contest. When Rose learns what the evening is really all about from Marcy, a less-than-attractive hooker (“It’s a Dogfight”), she responds with understandable rage and humiliation. Eddie suddenly realizes what he’s done to this sweet girl and tries to make it right and clear his conscience before heading off for war. In the course of reconciling with Rose, Eddie discovers they’re both very much alike and that he’s actually fallen in love with her (“Come Back”).
This musical is filled with mostly unlikable characters doing unspeakable things to each other. Matt Frye, so excellent in the recent [title of show], plays Boland, a total jerk who’s the epitome of the spoiled college frat boy. Likable Nick Graffagna, one of several standouts in BoHo’s recent production of “Ordinary Days,” nicely portrays an innocent geek who’s easily manipulated by his Marine buddies to participate in some offense antics. Garrett Lutz brings dimension and a real, heartbreaking honesty to the role of Eddie Birdlace. The character is a challenge, having to shift back and forth in time. As the musical opens (“Take Me Back”) he’s in the middle of his journey to maturity. We next see an Eddie who’s new to all this macho machination and simply wants to be one of the boys. When Rose eventually breaks down, lecturing him about the cruelty he’s inflicted, Birdlace finally realizes what’s important in his life. As Rose, the very lovely Emily Goldberg plays against type as the star of this musical. She’s absolutely the heart and soul of this production. Ms. Goldberg teenaged Rosie supplies the wisdom and moral sense of an adult among this ocean of hormone-raging boys. With a gorgeous voice projecting so much honesty and warmth (“Pretty Funny,” “Before It’s Over”), this charming young actress is every bit the talented leading lady this production demands.
Artistic Director Peter Marston Sullivan has brought this unsettling cult musical to life with sensitivity and precision. He’s wisely focused on his audience understanding what it means to put aside selfish and cruel childishness and become a grownup. Witnessing your best friends being blown to bits on the killing fields will sober up even the most macho man, and this horror is depicted in slow motion. Being able to love and empathize with others, to understand that being open and vulnerable isn’t a sign of weakness, but of strength and integrity, is the theme of this show. Mr. Sullivan has focused on these qualities in his production of this, the Chicago premiere, with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and a book by Peter Duchan.
This modest musical, which shows its strength in the second act, is played upon Patrick Ham’s magnificent set design and enhanced by Tony Churchill’s beautifully executed projections. Not simply an entertainment, this musical delivers a solid message. Its catchy score is under the guidance of Ellen K. Morris’ sharp musical direction. The sound, however, is sometimes uneven and off balance, making it difficult to hear the singers over the amplified instrumentation. Stephen Schellhardt has choreographed the show with sparkle and finesse, while Theresa Ham’s excellent period costumes perfectly recall the turbulent 60’s.
Although this musical is a journey toward self discovery for one young man and his muse and lady love, this show won’t appeal to every taste. It features a good deal of profanity and some harsh scenes of violence that are difficult to watch. But in the hands of this continually evolving company, Chicago is being offered a fine, respectable production of a show that deserves to be seen, that’s well-sung and acted and ultimately reminds audiences of the power of love.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 12-October 18 by BoHo Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-975-8150 or go to www.BoHoTheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.