I'm a freelance actor, travel writer, photographer, foodie and attention seeker living in the lower North Shore. Check out my blog at www.emmajaneexplores.com for more.
Romance blossoms to the backdrop of the Vietnam War
Based on the 1991 film of the same name, Dogfight the musical, written by Broadway wonder-kids Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is kind of the opposite to most musicals in that it is certainly not a jazz hands and glitzy production numbers kind of affair. Presented by Bankstown Theatre Company, this production challenges the audience's perceptions of musical theatre both musically and thematically and it is wonderful to see a community theatre company tackle a show that sits outside of the traditional musical theatre canon.
The show, set in the 1960's, centres on Eddie Birdlace, a marine about to ship out for his first tour of duty in Vietnam. He and his buddies have one night in San Francisco before they leave indefinitely and it's tradition for these new recruits to participate in the 'Dogfight' – a competition to see which marine can bring the ugliest girl to a party in order to win prize money. Quite frankly, it's gross and the very concept of it made my blood boil – so I guess it had the desired effect!
Birdlace wanders into a diner in search of the perfect girl to win him the prize money and meets Rose, a wannabe singer/guitarist who works in the diner with her mother. He decides she's the girl to win him the prize, and invites her to the party. As the night continues, though, he finds there is something special about Rose and his feelings start to change towards her, which also forces him to recognise his own flaws and faults.
At its heart, Dogfight is a love story with the majority of the stage time shared between Birdlace and Rose, but the love story overlayed with the imminent war time nightmare that the marines are headed to makes it all the more poignant and urgent. Director Meg Day has assembled a strong cast and a solid production that flows nicely. Her direction does not shy away from the ugliness of the Dogfight concept, and really strives to present the "heroic" marines as the anti-heroes. Particularly impressive is the way she manages to make the transition from the streets of San Francisco to the fields of Vietnam and back again seamless as in less capable hands this could be very clunky.
Musical direction by Clare Moroney is truly excellent. Her orchestra is tight and her cast constantly hit very difficult harmonies and timings with aplomb. This is not an easy score, constantly swapping from Sondheim-esque dissonance to folky pop amongst other genres, but this production handles it with ease. Choreographer Lauren Nalty does excellent work in her military-style choreography for the marines, definitely giving a foreboding sense of what's to come.
Stefan Jamal is a wonderful Eddie Birdlace. His voice is absolutely sublime and effortless and his characterisation of the Corporal's inner struggles definitely reads well to the audience. For the first act, I couldn't stand him because of his role in the Dogfight and his arrogance – which is exactly the way it should be. He might be the protagonist of the show, but he's fundamentally flawed and it is Rose (Tanya Boyle) who shows him how to overcome his issues and be a person of substance. Boyle's Rose is just the right balance of unsure and nervous, but as she finds her strength we see her pluck and determination – there is much more to this woman than meets the eye. Boyle's acting is spot on and delivers a truthful and genuine performance, setting Rose up as the true hero of the show. Birdlace's best friends and fellow marines Boland (Dean Irwin) and Bernstein (Andrew Fabris) are excellent in their roles, playing larrikins with a dark and nasty streak. Fabris in particular has a tough role in playing the innocence of the youthful Bernstein and layering that youthfulness with a darker side in an encounter with a sex worker. There are some shining moments from the ensemble members, too. Jessica Green does a great job as Marcy the trashy, foul mouthed sex worker, Brad Facey excels in a myriad of small roles and Hannah Barn elicits a spontaneous round of applause from the audience as she completely steals the party scene as the almost-comatose Ruth Two Bears.
The Love Story Blossoms
Dogfight is not an easy show to watch. It's treatment of women is infuriating, and even in Birdlace's final redemption, I'm left wondering whether he really deserves Rose. What I really enjoyed about this Bankstown Theatre Company production is that the disgusting and disturbing elements of this show are exposed in full force and not shied away from at all. We are meant to feel angry and revolted at the behaviour of the so-called heroes and this production delivers those emotions to us on a plate. It's a bold call to produce a show like Dogfight, particularly for a community theatre company, and in the case of Bankstown Theatre Company, that risk has certainly paid off with this clever and provocative production.