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NY1 Theater Review: "Dogfight"

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The 1991 film "Dogfight," which starred one-time teen idol River Phoenix, is now an off-Broadway musical. NY1’s Roma Torre filed the following report.

Take note of the date in which "Dogfight" is set: Nov. 21, 1963. That was the day before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the symbolic end of an era. Vietnam soon turned into a long, national nightmare amid dramatic cultural upheaval. "Dogfight," featuring a trio of Marines on their last day before shipping out, is a largely entertaining new musical that aims very high even if it doesn't always hit the mark.

They've got one night to raise hell before heading overseas where they're soon to discover hell on earth. They have no idea what's ahead of them and they even anticipate a hero's welcome when it's all over. On this night in San Francisco the young recruits plan what they call a "dogfight" in which they pool their money for a party and the guy who shows up with the ugliest woman wins the pot.

It sounds hideously cruel and that's how it registers. And if not for the fine performances, first-rate staging and impressive songs by young composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, it might be easy to dismiss the show as a cliched musical version of something out of Neil LaBute's misogynistic tales of woe.

Fortunately director Joe Mantello, with a wonderful assist from this year's Tony-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli, worked their magic on the predictable plot while humanizing the stereotyped characters.

The acting is uniformly strong, most especially Annaleigh Ashford in multiple comedic roles, Derek Klenna nicely transforming from thoughtless jarhead to sensitive young lover and Lindsay Mendez delivering a beautifully unaffected turn as a swan who refuses to be an ugly duckling.

"Dogfight" seems to be fighting itself, trying to be both a tender love story and a commentary on the time America lost its innocence. The upshot is a promising musical that wins our hearts more than our minds.

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