Before the Benj Pasek-Justin Paul musical “Dear Evan Hansen” premiered at Arena Stage this summer, their show “Dogfight” ran off-Broadway in 2012. The fingerprints are the same: The stories focus on young, vulnerable characters caught in lies. The music has an energetic pop base that easily expands into lush emotional territory.
The production of “Dogfight” that opened Tuesday at the Keegan Theatre isn’t top-notch — the troupe near Dupont Circle has a fraction of Arena’s budget — but it’s more than passable. It also gives musical theater buffs another chance to see why these young songwriters are going places. (The success here of “Dear Evan Hansen” quickly catapulted it to New York’s Second Stage Theatre for next spring.)
“Dogfight” is pretty closely adapted, with book-writer Peter Duchan, from the 1991 River Phoenix-Lili Taylor movie about a young Marine named Eddie Birdlace, who lures a plain girl named Rose to a mean-spirited contest. The guy who brings the ugliest female wins, and the musical’s early songs are packed with testosterone — fellas who don’t know women from war leaping and bellowing like they’re ready to take a hill.
It’s 1963 and Birdlace and his pals are being shipped to Vietnam the following day, but except for the tunes in the dance hall, Pasek and Paul don’t ape the sound of the era. Musical director and keyboardist Jake Null anchors a small, flexible orchestra comprising guitar, bass and drums driving the rowdy first half of the show, plus violin and cello prying open your heart in act two. If you’ve seen the intensely delicate and vulnerable “Dear Evan Hansen,” you can’t help but wait for the second half of this show, when Rose and Birdlace brawl at the dogfight and then tentatively start on a real date. These songs are wonderful, especially a number with Rose and Birdlace tentatively singing nervous “bum-bum-bums” that flutter on top of an infectious, hopeful melody.
As Birdlace, Tiziano D’Affuso makes the blustery and foul-mouthed young Marine almost too easy to like, and Isabelle Smelkinson crackles with more confidence than you believe Rose really has; the performances in the production by Christina A. Coakley and Michael Innocenti are just a hair off. Colin Dieck’s lighting is arresting, though, when the scene finally shifts to Vietnam before returning to a changed San Francisco four years later, and the voices are consistently sure.
Give Keegan credit, too, for choosing the piece, since the lucky timing gives Washington an impromptu festival. Pasek and Paul, nice to meet you.
Way out at NextStop Theatre Company in Herndon, Paul Scanlon and Karen Vincent are ready and able to sing the heck out of the lead roles, Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi, in “Kiss Me, Kate” (which is also being produced by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in November). That’s almost the whole of what director Michael Bobbitt’s peppy but pushy production has going for it.
Comedy is hard, and unfortunately that’s how it looks as too many actors stretch for funny voices and silly walks in this classic backstage musical comedy. The sassy Cole Porter score also proves to be too much for a mere four instruments. You feel for the lone reed player bravely trying to supply all the color above the keyboard, bass and drums.
The small cast of 11 strides through the converted 130-seat (or so) space in an industrial park with a reasonable amount of moxie, but the show never clicks, even when Scanlon and Vincent square off as the intractably attached “Taming of the Shrew” lovers. Their full-bodied singing is convincing, but their acting — Scanlon’s straight-arrow take on the swashbuckling Graham, especially — isn’t.
Dogfight, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, book by Peter Duchan. Directed by Christina A. Coakley and Michael Innocenti. Choreography, Kurt Boehm; scenic design, Matthew Keenan; costumes, Jesse Shipley; sound design, Dan Deiter. With Harrison Smith, David Landstrom, Dani Stoller, Chad Wheeler, Chani Wereley, Matt Hirsh, Ian Anthony Coleman, Ricky Drummond, Eben K. Logan and Susan Marie Rhea. About 2
Kiss Me, Kate, music and lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Bella and Samuel Spewack. Directed by Michael Bobbitt. Choreography, Rachel Dolan; music direction, Steve Przybylski; set, Elizabeth McFadden; lights, Max Doolittle; costumes, Kristina Martin; sound design, Stan Harris. With Emily Levey, Stephen Russell Murray, Daphne Epps, Hasani Allen, Robert Libby, Kevin Place, Drew Stairs, Shaina Murphy, and Hannah Jennens. About 2
Call 703-481-5930 or visit www.nextstoptheatre.org