At the center of Dogfight, an Off-Broadway musical that’s now getting a first-rate production in the Broward Center’s Abdo New River Room, is a nasty little contest.
The idea behind a competition among Marines about to depart for combat in Vietnam is repugnant enough that you might be tempted to skip this particular show — but that would be your loss. With Dogfight, the Slow Burn Theatre team, which recently “christened” its new home in the center’s Amaturo Theater with an impressive production of Big Fish, continues to demonstrate the many reasons that the Broward Center has made the company one of its official arts partners.
Director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater and his creative collaborators — musical director Emmanuel Schvartzman, set designer Sean McClelland, costume designer Rick Peña and lighting designer Becky Montero — have transformed what is really a banquet space at the center into a space that serves the musical.
McClelland’s multi-level set, sporting faux militaristic metal and camouflage, adapts for smaller scenes set in 1963 San Francisco. At the show’s final preview, Richard Szczblewski’s sound and the vocal blend were impeccable, even when some of the actors were onstage and others were standing among the tables where the audience sits. And from Slow Burn veterans and newcomers alike, Fitzwater draws strong performances, character-appropriate movement and the fine singing that is another of the company’s hallmarks.
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Based on a 1991 movie starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor, the 2012 musical version of Dogfight features a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and a book by Peter Duchan. It follows the blowing-off-steam activities of Marines determined to make their last night stateside a memorable one. Close friends Eddie Birdlace (Alexander Zenoz), Bernstein (Mike Westrich) and Boland (Christian Vandepas), who call themselves the “three bees” after their last names, decide they’ll get matching bee tattoos. But not before they participate in a contest dubbed “the dogfight.”
Each Marine throws $50 into a prize pot, then goes out to find the ugliest gal he can to invite to a party. The rules, as one guy crudely states them, are “no lookers, no hookers, no retards.” The women are kept in the dark, and the Marine whose date is judged ugliest wins the dough.
Eddie encounters Rose Fenny (Hannah Benitez), a plain-Jane waitress who’s into folk singing and thinking about the Peace Corps. He invites her to the party but begins to soften from the moment he sees her dolled up in a puffy-sleeved burgundy dress and pearls. The other guys are into the competition, with Boland breaking the rules by hiring a demanding and dentally challenged prostitute named Marcy (Alexa Baray), while Bernstein shows up with the plus-sized Ruth Two Bears (Kaitlyn O’Neill). As a Lounge Singer (Ben Sandomir) croons, the couples dance, the gals get judged, and the truth finally comes out.
Nasty? Oh yes. But Dogfight takes a welcome turn when Eddie goes about making amends. The burgeoning love story between Eddie and Rose, unfolding through the songs First Date/Last Night, Before It’s Over and Give Way, encompasses unexpected passion, too-quick separation and an ending that doesn’t quite hit it out of the park (the fault of the creators, not the actors).
The cast, which also includes Brian Varela, Cameron Jordan, Sabrina Lynn Gore and Peña, is a strong, cohesive ensemble. Benitez sports a very unfortunate wig but is otherwise compelling as a young, inexperienced woman who stands up for herself but keeps an open mind — and heart. Zenoz, whose Eddie swears up a storm early on, walks the fine line between being a user and being ashamed of his actions, coming home broken but open to reclaiming an all-too-brief joy. The two young actors are appealing leads.
Dogfight is by no means one of the great musicals, and the contest from which it takes its name may be too off-putting for some. But as Fitzwater has proven time and again, even lesser musicals are worth watching when Slow Burn takes them on.
If you go
What: ‘Dogfight’ by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Peter Duchan.
Where: Abdo New River Room at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 1 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday; through Nov. 29.
Information: 954-462-0222 or visit www.browardcenter.org.