Dogfight

Hayes Theatre Co, May 6

Luigi Lucente and Hilary Cole. Photo: Noni Carroll

Luigi Lucente and Hilary Cole. Photo: Noni Carroll

The musical Dogfight begins with a nasty, humiliating prank but turns into a sweet, tender show where redemptive love trumps misogyny.

Written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) together with Peter Duchan (book), Dogfight premiered off-Broadway in 2012. It now makes its Australian premiere with a stunning production directed and produced by Neil Gooding in association with Hayes Theatre Co.

Based on a little-known 1991 film starring River Phoenix, with screenplay by Bob Comfort, Dogfight begins in 1967 with a blank-faced, clearly traumatised young marine called Eddie Birdlace (Luigi Lucente) on a Greyhound bus headed for San Francisco.

His memories take us back to 1963 when he and his two best mates – Boland (Toby Francis) and Bernstein (Rowan Witt) – spent a rowdy night on the town in San Francisco before being shipped out to Vietnam the following morning.

Swaggeringly macho, with just 13 weeks training under their belt, they naively believe they are going to storm into battle and return heroes. Their attitude to women is as aggressive as their attitude to war.

They decide to celebrate their last night on home soil with a “dogfight”, a vile “Jarhead” tradition whereby they compete to see who can bring the ugliest woman to a party. Each puts money into a pot; the winner takes all.

At the heart of the show are Eddie and Rose Fenny (Hilary Cole), the shy, awkward, guitar-playing waitress he picks up at a diner and takes to the party, then unexpectedly falls for.

Duchan has created a strong narrative structure from which the songs emerge naturally. Ranging from testosterone-powered rock numbers to lilting, wistful melodies, it’s an appealing, catchy score. Some of the songs have a folksy feel, with Rose foreshadowing the hippie era, while her number “Nothing Short of Wonderful” has something of a Sondheim influence.

James Browne and Georgia Hopkins have designed an economical set backed by a gauzy “brick wall” scrim featuring an enormous image of Cole’s face through which we glimpse the terrific six-piece band led by musical director Isaac Hayward. Four large diner seats are moved around into various configurations for the different locations. Effectively lit by Ross Graham and Alex Berlage, it’s a flexible space in which Gooding keeps the tightly choreographed action flowing freely: yet another clever design solution for the tiny 111-seat venue.

Cole is beguiling as Rose. She is naturally very pretty but manages to convince us of Rose’s vulnerability and gaucheness (helped by Elizabeth Franklin’s excellent costuming) as well as her strength, spirit and humour, while her pure, shining voice suits the character’s innocence perfectly.

Lucente is equally impressive as Eddie, conveying the turmoil of emotion coiled beneath the tough, terse exterior in a beautifully understated performance that moves from bravado to brokenness. There is great chemistry between the two of them, and both moved me to tears.

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

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

Among the strong ensemble cast of 11, Francis radiates Boland’s pumped-up, bone-headed machismo, while Witt gives a very convincing portrayal of the geeky Bernstein, who gets high on the general macho posturing and snaps at one point in a surprisingly brutal moment.

Johanna Allen brings powerhouse vocals to the role of the brassy hooker Marcy, another of the so-called “dogs”, while Mark Simpson takes on a number of very different roles with chameleon ease.

Dogfight portrays abhorrent macho behaviour, which the writers neither condone nor judge, but they make it clear that this is the culture that the young marines have grown up in and been shaped by: a culture, which dehumanises women as much as the enemy they are off to fight, but also knocks the soul out of the young men themselves.

When the musical played in London last year, some slammed it for its ugly misogyny, but the writers undercut this with the central love story, which is sweet, sad and genuinely moving. Our sympathies, meanwhile, are clearly with the women in the show, who are strong, funny and forgiving.

This production captures all that nuance most touchingly. Once again, the Hayes Theatre proves to be a leading light in Sydney’s musical theatre scene.

Dogfight plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until May 31. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on May 10

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