One of Milwaukee’s newest theater companies, All-In Productions, closes its inaugural season with a terrifically entertaining production of Dogfight: The Musical. Diehard musical theater fans may be familiar with this offbeat show, which had its 2012 Off-Broadway premiere at Second Stage Theatre. It received enthusiastic critical response and a cast album was recorded.
The young Milwaukee cast demonstrates skill and credibility as they create characters about their own age. A number of these actors are still in college, learning their craft, just as their onstage characters are learning life lessons.
The musical is set in 1967, and it follows the final night of liberty for three Marines. Pumped-up by their mission (a trip to Vietnam) and a bit scared of the uncertainties ahead, they hide their feelings through bravado and callous behavior. The immature trio decides to have a “dogfight,” which involves throwing money into a pot that will be won by the Marine who brings the ugliest date to a party that evening. One of the Marines breaks an unofficial “rule” of the dogfight by hiring a prostitute. The results are hilarious as the wise-cracking Marcy increases her financial demands during the evening.
Interestingly, director Robby McGee selects women of average-looking attractiveness as candidates for the “ugliest” prize. Their “ugliness” rests only in the eyes of the Marines, it seems. Even though one of the women is supposedly overweight, a fact mentioned several times in the show, the girl in question is only slightly well-fed.
One of the Marines, Eddie, finds a quiet, shy waitress in her mother’s coffee shop. Rose is a bit startled (but thrilled) when Eddie asks her to the party. She struggles with her wardrobe (as well as her heart-thumping feelings) at being asked on a date. She and Eddie have a chance to get better acquainted as they walk to the party. Eddie begins to like Rose and hesitates to take her inside, as he’s ashamed at being a part of this ruse. Rose misunderstands, thinking she is not attractive enough to be introduced to Eddie’s friends. Eddie, caught in a pinch, decides to take her inside.
Meanwhile, the prostitute (Amber Smith), complains to Rose about not getting enough of the money. Rose is completely caught off-guard at learning about “dogfights.” She is understandably upset.
The rest of the story is a fairly predictable series of events that give Eddie and Rose a better understanding of love, betrayal and second chances. Eddie goes off to war, where some of his closest friends are killed in battle. He returns to the US confused and disheartened. Like Rose at the party, he is completely oblivious about how civilians may react to his homecoming.
While the music (by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) is acceptable, it is not memorable enough to elevate this production. What does stand out is Karl Miller’s choreography, which also was a highlight of All-In’s previous show, Little Shop of Horrors. The onstage orchestra adds a welcome dimension to the production. Under the direction of Patrick Thompson, a handful of talented musicians give this show a larger, Broadway feel.
The show rests on the credibility of its two main performers, and this production doesn’t disappoint. Rachael Zientek gives Rose a sweet sense of tenderness and concern. She exudes an almost motherly sense of caring towards her nervous Marine. As Eddie, Lucas Pastrana has a more difficult assignment. He must be emotionally drawn to Rose while at the same time demonstrating the bluster of his Marine buddies while in their presence. His effectiveness at achieving this dichotomy is displayed as he tears up Rose’s address before flying off to Vietnam.
The rest of the cast is also up to par. As Eddie’s two closest friends, actors JT Backes and Eric Pfeiffer display moments of unintended humor (especially at the tattoo parlor) and also give convincing performances as young Marines. Matt Zeman, the party entertainer and later as a snobbish waiter, also has his roles down pat. The rest of the Marines, as well as the other women in the production, enhance the overall “feel” of the production.
Costumes create the look and feel of the 1960s without overdoing it. The “love child”-dressed women are particularly effective. The minimal set could have used a bit more detail to capture the flavor of the time.
All-In Productions has produced an exceptionally fine first season, and one looks forward to their next endeavors. But for now, Milwaukee playgoers should definitely mark down Dogfight: The Musical as a must-see show on their entertainment calendar.