The venue may have changed, but the result is still the same: Street Theatre Company knows how to put on a musical. In the spacious auditorium of East Nashville’s Bailey STEM Magnet Middle School the very gifted professionals led by multi-talented Executive Artistic Director Cathy Street are now offering a tough and tender “Dogfight” where youth is on engaging and entertaining display in more ways than one.
I remember the 1991 movie starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor that inspired this show; I rather liked it and after hearing the high-energy score by young songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Tony-nominated in 2013 for the music and lyrics of “A Christmas Story The Musical”) I really like this version too. I’m certainly not the only one – its 2012 Off-Broadway run at Second Stage (with a cast that included 2015 Tony-winner Annaleigh Ashford) snagged 2013 Lucille Lortel Awards for Outstanding Musical and Outstanding Choreography (Christopher Gattelli). The solid book is by another relative newcomer, the rather promising screenwriter/playwright Peter Duchan (“Breaking Upwards”).
The story starts on a 1967 bus ride to San Francisco but most of the story is set on Nov. 21, 1963 – the eve of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination – as Marine buddies that call themselves “The Three Bees” spend a night in the City By the Bay before shipping off to Okinawa, Japan (and eventually a small Southeastern Asia country few knew anything about at the time). Private First Class Eddie Birdlace (Jens Jacobson) and his pals Boland (Taylor Kelly) and Bernstein (Kyle O’Connor) are excited about the prospects of winning a “dogfight” – a mean-spirited game where a Jarhead cops the cash prize if they bring the ugliest gal to the party.
At a diner Eddie spots waitress Rose Fenny (Audrey Johnson) and decides she’ll be his date for the evening. What begins so cynically changes as Eddie realizes Rose means so much more than a few bucks.
Jacobsen and Johnson have great voices, but their acting is no less impressive – from moments where their characters’ contrasting personalities clash to scenes where their growing affection is palpable these two leads are utterly believable. Particularly moving moments occur in a trilogy of numbers (“First Date, Last Night,” “Before It’s Over” and “Give Way”) that chronicle not only their romantically awkward night together but Rose’s new-found determination to be more than others have thought she could, or should, be.
Kelly and O’Connor are strong in support, as is Margaret French, who plays a rough-edged prostitute named Marcy that Boland recruits to help him win the dogfight. French’s duet with Johnson in the title tune “Dogfight” is one of the show’s several highlights. The entire cast (including Mary Kate Hughes in a fine double as Ruth Two Bears and Rose’s mama) brings such ability, poise and precision to this show, which contains harrowing looks at violence and death; it will be exciting to see these young performers again and again in Nashville theater (and likely elsewhere as well). A special shout-out to Sawyer Wallace, who plays four parts in the show: I know what it’s like to do four or more roles in a production and it’s hard to pull off, so bravo Mr. Wallace!
Musical director Randy Craft certainly has the pop-rock score humming along nicely as he and his fellow first-class musicians play above the main stage – Craft tickles the keys while Luke Easterling plays bass, Cameron Cleland adds his guitar, Tim Kampen bows cello and Chris Schaub takes care of the back beat and more on drums. Renee Sola has the ‘60s military and civilian looks just right with her costumes, Randall Pike’s well-executed set even sports homage to the old Haight-Ashbury street sign and Steven Steele’s light calls acutely probe the dramatic spaces where hopes and dreams can quickly, and terribly, collide with fears and nightmares.
Bravo to the director – who tied all the aforementioned elements together with blocking and movement that never takes a false step – and her colleagues. We likely wouldn’t see an Off-Broadway gem like “Dogfight” here if it weren’t for Street Theatre Company; we also wouldn’t see it as well done. The high quality of their work is consistent wherever they call home.
Dogfight, a musical directed by Cathy Street for Street Theatre Company [phone (615) 554-7414], continues through June 21 at Bailey STEM Magnet Middle School (2000 Greenwood Ave.). All tickets are Pay-What-You-Can; click here to get tickets online now. Friday, June 12 is “Pride/Night Out on Street“; theater patrons also get 10% off of their purchase at Eastland Cafe and free cover to Play Dance Bar and The Lipstick Lounge. Note: This show contains mature themes, situations and language. It is intended for adults audiences only.