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Dogfight: a Well-done Operatic Musical

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Marine "Jarhead" choir

“Dogfight: The Musical” made passage from Broadway to many prestigious local theaters in the US, Canada, and Australia. The production, with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and a book by Peter Duchan, has received rave reviews and a lot of analysis.

Presented by the Green Valley Theatre Company, whose shows play at the Grange Performing Arts Center, “Dogfight” is a very noteworthy production in every aspect. The actors are a solid troupe which functions as a brotherhood (and sisterhood) of ideas, concepts and dramatic insults.

Set in the 1960s, when US foreign policy was reaching out to try and annihilate Communism in the Far East, the political lingo was to advise the natives and then show them how to dramatically kill the Communists or Viet Cong. As the war wore on, these concepts began to fail, and troop morale began to droop. Military policy demanded a rather stiff behavior code which emphasized brotherhood of men, subservient sisterhood, and unwavering support of our guys over there. Recruitment featured imagined rewards of parades and honor medals. Recruitees took it seriously—especially the Marine Corps, who called themselves Jarheads.

These guys took advantage of this permissive policy and were quick to demonize women and do whatever they want to them. All this as a way of getting ready to buddy up and fight the enemy.

The lead character, Eddie Birdlace played by Casey Camacho, is ready for this way of misbehaving. He is poised to take off on a military mission and has stirred himself and his buddies up into a near fervor of emotion.

The songs are all original, and the orchestration and construction of the lyrics is brilliant. An orchestra of keyboard, two guitars, piano/synth, violin and cello, with expert harmonies and virtuoso riffs, raises this score to the level of modern experimental opera. What I heard was four octaves above most Broadway musicals, which have a much less distinguished operetta quality.

The plot revolves around a game called Dogfight, where the guys solicit an ugly babe and bring her to a party. After kicking in $50 each, the one who brings the ugliest babe wins the pot. Invitees are not told what is to happen, and when they find out, all hell breaks loose.

Rose, the lead female character, has been working with her mother in a coffee house, sweeping up and humming then current folk songs by Woody Guthrie and his clan. Her heart is set on peace, but she is not yet ready to march for peace. Eddie tries to convince her to go to the Dogfight party. She says she hardly knows him. But he persists. Finally she agrees. There’s a terrible scene when she finds out about the game.

During a bus ride from Southern California to San Francisco, Eddie seems perturbed about those who don’t like the war buildup or the macho ways of his fellow Jarhead Marines. He is also fearful of getting shot at in combat. In one scene all his fellows do get shot while pointing their rather realistic replicas at the audience and then shooting at just about anything that pretends to move.

Director Carly Giroux has fashioned a very tightly balanced stage scenario, using what amounts to a large 3D box with scene changes and actors moving in the main aisle or off and quickly back onto the elevated stage. When the group sings together it is with extreme solidarity, especially as the lyrics are expressing total disdain for the female species.

The plot filters down at the end with Rose and Eddie getting together again with a humorous staging of a fancy meal where she imitates him with hostile jargon toward a supercilious waiter. He learns in that moment how foolish he sometimes sounds, and the audience can see change taking place in his otherwise hostile facial grimaces.

At the end of the show the orchestra does what I call a postlude, indicating that permanent change has taken place, and there is the likelihood of a lasting relationship between Eddie and Rose.

All the music is memorable, and of operatic quality, without any screeching or preening.

Some of the actors who deserve special note are Meredith Nixon as Roses’ mother and Scott Minor as the Lounge Singer for the Dogfight competition.

Two Bears, a Native American gal, is very good at dishing out the slaps she gets from the Jarheads. It is pleasant and reassuring to see adult behavior come to the fore.

This show is excellent in most respects. I never lost interest in the lines, even thought I had to look up the actual expletives in Marcy’s song.

One hopefully helpful comment to the lighting guy–we need to see the changing facial expression on Eddie when he begins to take on an adult role with Rose as they are standing on the Golden Gate Bridge admiring each other. That scene is too dark.

Another comment is to provide theater goers a longer dramaturgical statement. This play is a controversial subject which deserves detailed analysis.

Who should see it? People who went through 1960s draft evasion or who walked Berkeley and San Francisco streets for Peace causes, or military who can put things in perspective. The show may be inappropriate for teenagers, due mostly to the depiction of male misbehavior.

Before buying a ticket, I suggest reading the Wikipedia article on the musical and various reviews by NY Times, Variety, the Observer, and such. Meg Masterson, a local blogger, posted a great review on her site as well.

Dogfight, the musical will run Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 7pm through May 17. The Grange Performing Arts Center is located at 3823 V Street, near Stockton Blvd. Purchase tickets at greenvalleytheatre.com. Buy tickets now as the show is known to sell out quickly.

Dogfight: a Well-done Operatic Musical via @sacramentopress

About the author

Robin Aurelius

Robin Aurelius is a retired librarian, member of CSUS Friends of the Library, politicfal activist, church organist, accordion player, folk singer, storyteller, member of Sons Retirement Branch 33, theater goer, member of Nextdoor Sacramento, and writer for the Sacramento Press

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