Dogfight (Chapel Off Chapel) – musical theatre review

More than ever, in 2023 the theme has an ick factor. It made my skin crawl. Today, cyberbullying is unfortunately rife, with physical appearance being a common reason why. Dogfight, in the context of this musical, refers to the practice among Marines of placing bets on ugly women.

Photos by Nicole Cleary

This is the story of Eddie Birdlace, who is about to turn 21. It is 21st November 1963, the day before JFK’s assassination. Having completed his basic training in San Francisco, Birdlace and two fellow recruits are due to ship out, enroute to Vietnam, the next morning.

Before then, it is party time and that involves wagering on unattractive ladies at $50 a shot, with the winner’s pot going to the Marine that brings the worst looking. Eddie meets idealist waitress Rose Fenny in a diner and invites her along. Boland breaks the established rules of the dogfight by doing a deal with Marcy, a street-smart prostitute, to act as his date. But things backfire spectacularly for both Birdlace and Boland.

Despite her disgust when she catches out Birdlace, Fenny gives him a second chance. Even though Birdlace’s aggression continues to cause some issues, the pair connects. Their all too brief encounter is followed up four years later when Birdlace returns to Frisco, the horrors of war etched all over his face.

An adaptation of the 1991 coming of age drama Dogfight, starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor, the book of the musical is by Peter Duchan. The music and lyrics are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Dogfight, the musical opened off-Broadway in July 2012.

Given the fraught nature of the subject matter, theatrical has put on a strong production, featuring several talented performers. From the opening moments, Antoinette Davis mesmerises with her vocal acuity. She has a beautiful rich texture to her voice and acts up a storm. Daniel Nieborski has a sweet resonance as her first crush Eddie, who deftly straddles the emotional rollercoaster required of his role.

Also impressing are Josh Direen, who brings ugly menace to his portrayal of Boland, and Tristan Sicari, who runs with the pack as the uncertain Bernstein. Madeline Pratt makes her mark, bringing attitude and sass to Marcy. Pip Mushin’s direction is sound and engaging, while musical director Timothy John Wilson has done a fine job with a six-piece band.

Lighting and sound are solid, but I wasn’t sold on the staging. I found it largely bland and uninteresting, save for pendant lighting and period signage. The latter promotes Uncle Sam, San Francisco, chewing gum and more.

A sprawling set takes up the full stage at Chapel Off Chapel’s main theatre and that is fine. But the five sets of low-rise stairs built into it mean excess movement up, down and around, which quickly becomes tiresome. So, too, a less than full height black curtain underneath the high point of the layered stage. That means actors are constantly ducking to get in and out, which is distracting.

Also, one other gripe. An early scene involves a platoon of soldiers all dressed in white t-shirts, green fatigue trousers and boots. It is the latter that stood out for the wrong reason, to which my eyes were immediately drawn. Some looked dull and worn, others shiny. Consistency please. Still, overall Dogfight has bite, as it builds momentum to a devastating conclusion.

It is playing at Chapel Off Chapel until 26th November, 2023.

Alex First

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