Dogfight, a tacit love story overshadowed by the antics of marines during the Vietnam War, isn’t your usual hearts-and-flowers musical.
But last night’s audience at the Southwark Playhouse offered their gung-ho support to the off-Broadway hit which is now in a London residency for its European premiere.
The late River Phoenix played teen recruit Eddie Birdlace in the 1991 film version and director Matt Ryan has found an admirable replacement in fresh-faced lead Jamie Muscato.
It’s an odd choice of story to add music and choreography but rising songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have garnered widespread acclaim following the NY opening.
Peter Duchan’s story is set primarily in San Francisco in 1963. A group of young marines are getting ready to be shipped out to Vietnam.
As a rite of passage they organise a Dogfight – a cruel and heartless competition where each recruit must bring the ugliest girl they can find to a party. The plainest date wins their marine a pot of cash.
Our reluctant protagonist, Eddie, is initially one of the instigators of the event.
He stumbles on Rose, a cafe waitress and sometime folk singer. She’s not exactly a fragrant bloom but her homely looks attract the competitive 18-year-old.
Rose has never been on a date before and she’s wide-eyed with expectation.
When the reality hits home she’s devastated. Can her burgeoning relationship with Eddie survive?
Newcomer Laura Jane Matthewson makes you want to weep as the lovely Rose. She panics over what to wear and how to look. She wants it all to be perfect.
Among her fellow “dogs” is a plump Native American, a bespectacled middle-aged woman in shocking Crimpolene and a tart with a heart.
I last saw Rebecca Trehearn as the lead in Ghost. Here she gives a spirited performance as a prostitute drafted in to knobble the contest (her big song, Dogfight is a bit of a show-stopper).
Muscato, as the intense, complex and damaged Eddie, gives a brooding and powerful performance and is a name to watch out for in the future.
The musical is a great showcase for up-and-coming talent with most of the cast straight out of drama school. Cellen Chugg Jones as GI Boland is a coiled spring of anger and testosterone.
It’s an intriguing drama that takes the audience from the pumped-up expectancy of its brave American youth to the bitter resentment felt by the public just four years later.