With apologies to Don McLean, the music didn’t truly die for America on Feb. 3, 1959, when a plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson crashed into a cornfield in Iowa, but rather on Nov. 22, 1963, when a bullet fired by Lee Harvey Oswald crashed into the skull of President John F. Kennedy. That also happens to be the date that Eddie Birdlace (AJ Mendini) and Rose Fenny (Caitlin Hughes), the lead characters of the musical “Dogfight,” lose their virginity.
“Dogfight,” which will be performed by the Bellarine Theatre Co. at 7 p.m. on May 19, 20 and 21 and at 3 p.m. on May 22, is a loss-of-innocence allegory based on a 1991 movie of the same name with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and a book by Peter Duchan.
Birdlace, a U.S. Marine, and his buddies Bernstein (Ian Mullin) and Boland (Chris Huch), are about to ship out to Vietnam. So they decide to party their butts off in San Francisco. Their idea of fun is crude and cruel. They, and other Marines, decide to stage a “dogfight.” They rent a club in which to throw a party, and each chips in $50 to a pot that will be won by the guy who brings the ugliest girl to the dance. They then hit the streets looking for dates.
Birdlace ends up in a diner where he meets Rose, an overweight, quiet and lonely waitress. She accepts his invitation to the party, thrilled because she’s never had a date before. Rose tells Birdlace of her dreams of becoming a folksinger and of her interest in a slowly growing pacifism movement (this is San Francisco, after all). He finds himself charmed by her innocence and suggests they skip the party and go off for a quiet dinner. Rose thinks he’s embarrassed to introduce her to his friends, so to prove that isn’t the case, Birdlace goes through with Plan A. Boland has broken the rules, hiring Marcy (Melinda Gioe), a scag of a streetwalker, to win the bet. His gambit is successful.
Rose has no idea what is going on around her until she and Marcy are alone in the ladies room and Marcy spills the beans about the bet. Rose slaps Birdlace across the face, screams that she hopes he and all his buddies get killed in Vietnam and then leaves for home. Act One ends with her alone in her bedroom, crying and singing herself to sleep:
Shut the light off turn the bed down
No more crying don’t you dare
You’ll wake up sometime tomorrow
And forget to even care.
Meanwhile, the Marines are out whoring. Birdlace, feeling guilty, slips away and returns to Rose’s home. He apologizes, takes her out for a late-night dinner, and they visit the Golden Gate to get a view of the city. They fall for each other and return to her bed. Then it is off to Vietnam, where, over the course of four years, Boland and Bernstein are killed. Birdlace returns to San Francisco in 1967 and finds it a totally different city, overrun with hippies who spit in his face.
Post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association until 1980, but Birdlace is definitely suffering from it. He has lost contact with Rose, despite taking her address with him to Vietnam, but they bump into each other, and he collapses into her arms in tears.
Now, San Francisco is a large city. The odds of Birdlace and Rose meeting in the street would have to be pretty steep – a case of deus ex machina if ever there was one. Indeed, the book of “Dogfight” is often clunky, with actors forced by the script to rely far too many times on earnest stares into space as they consider their futures and pasts. At certain points “Dogfight” seems like a Ted Cruz speech, with more pregnant pauses than words. Pasek and Paul, however, are definitely up-and-comers in the world of musical theater, composing sometimes lively and sometimes soulful songs. They tackled “Dogfight” while still in their 20s and followed it up with “A Christmas Story, The Musical,” which earned them a Best Original Score Tony nomination. Their songs, especially when delivered by Hughes and Mendini, push “Dogfight” far beyond mediocrity. The show hits the heart hard. Movie audiences leaving “Schindler’s List” often left in silence, eschewing “that was really good” comments to instead contemplate what they just witnessed. There’s a very good chance the Bellarine Theatre Co.’s powerful “Dogfight” will earn the same response.
“Dogfight” will be presented at the Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts and Sciences, located at 120 Long Beach Blvd. in the Loveladies neighborhood of Long Beach Township. Tickets are $20 for preferred seating, $18 for adults and $15 for students and seniors. They may be purchased online at btco.booktix.com or at the door.
Be advised that this production includes harsh language, adult situations and violence.