A vicious first act about young Vietnam-bound Marines organizing a sadistic contest turns sensitive and tender in the second act of “Dogfight,” the new musical at Second Stage. This Joe Mantello-helmed vehicle has plenty going for it, including a better-than-usual score and a gripping performance by Lindsay Mendez as a self-described “lonely, pathetic, ugly fat girl.” The gratuitous cruelty of the setup, though, makes the three male leads downright unlikable, leaving a bitter taste that — while integral to the plot — might put off viewers. Second Stage subscribers are accustomed to provocative musicals, but “Dogfight” looks to be a difficult sell for wider audiences.
The storyline is harsh, stemming from the 1991 film of the same title (which starred River Phoenix and Lili Taylor). Three 20-year-old sailors arrive in San Francisco, from where they will embark overseas. Their final night’s activity is a “dogfight” dance; whoever brings the ugliest girl wins the cash jackpot, with the girls unaware of the true nature of the event. Eddie (Derek Klena) finds guitar-strumming wallflower waitress Rose (Mendez), whose jaw drops when she is suddenly invited by this handsome stranger on her very first date.
Both he and the audience quickly realize that Rose is no “dog.” He tries to disinvite her, but too late, and the contest at the end of the first act is just plain mean. When the charactersbehave in ways so heinous they deserve to be shot, and the authors immediately thereafter send them to Vietnam, the audience is left on uncomfortable ground.
The piece is nevertheless intriguing. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s songs are impressive, particularly when they are writing for Rose — she’s a fan of Woody Guthrie, so her songs have a folksy flavor. Mendez scores with “Nothing Short of Wonderful” and “Before It’s Over,” with the musical highlight being the unusual but effective boy/girl duet “First Date/Last Night,” in which the estranged pair, with nothing in common, tentatively feel their way forward. Pasek and Paul’s songs for the abrasive Marines, though, are functional but harsh.
Stealing the spotlight is Mendez, whose delivery of “Bless the Lord” was the brightest spot in last season’s revival of “Godspell.” The self-conscious Rose lives under a cloud of disappointment, with a treasure of personality hidden away under that bouffant hairdo; Mendez brings out that personality when she sings. Klena manages to find sympathy within the blustery lead Marine, Eddie, after doing similarly well last winter as another boy who cruelly befriends a forlorn heroine, in the revival of “Carrie.”
Annaleigh Ashford adds some vulgar but welcome humor as Marcy, the prostitute who wins the dogfight; James Moye is helpful in several roles, including as a snooty headwaiter; and Dierdre Friel garners multiple laughs as a rotund Indian maiden just off the reservation.
The book by Peter Duchan has a few well-written and tender scenes (unusual for a current-day musical), as well as some very funny sections. Director Mantello does his customarily effective job, maneuvering his 11 actors around the small stage and making efficient use of a turntable. Lighting by Paul Gallo is notably strong, as is Michael Starobin’s six-piece orchestration. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography for the Marines is serviceable but displays none of the sparkle of his work on “Newsies.”
This is a quirky, intimate musical with impressive but difficult material, not unlike Off Broadway wartime tuners “Violet” and “Yank.” Those two worthy titles were unable to make the leap to a commercial transfer. “Dogfight” has plenty going for it, but could well find itself in the same platoon.