DOGFIGHT's Humor and Heart Launch Stray Dog Theatre's 13th Season

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Stray Dog Theatre's DOGFIGHT, through October 24, 2015

 The joy of seeing a theatrical show for the first time is that everything is a surprise. Such was the case with DOGFIGHT, a musical presented by Stray Dog Theatre. Based on a 1991 film starring River Phoenix (which I don’t believe I’ve ever seen), with the book by Peter Duchan and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, DOGFIGHT was not exactly what I expected – which is kind of funny, because I really didn’t know what to expect. I guess I had decided from the title alone that it would be a gritty war story with music both rousing and melancholy. Instead, it turned out to be a funny and touching love story, and I was not at all disappointed to have my preconceived notions dashed.

DOGFIGHT isn’t about combat, it’s about a contest to see who can find the ugliest date before three Marines fresh out of basic training ship off for Vietnam. The three “jarheads” are Eddie Birdlace (Brendan Ochs), Private Boland (Luke Steingruby) and Private Bernstein (Kevin O’Brien). With one last night of freedom before getting shipped off to the South Pacific, the trio set off for a night of drinking, dames and debauchery. While Boland and Bernstein found some odd dates – jaded Marcy (Sara Rae Womack) and out-of-place Ruth Two Bears (Tracey Herweck) – in hopes of winning the “dogfight” prize money, Eddie found himself a very nice gal in waitress and budding songstress Rose Fenny (Shannon Cothran). The bulk of the show is focused on their fast-blooming romance despite the sophomoric circumstances of their relationship.

Director Justin Been balances some not-so-nice antics with laugh-out-loud humor and generally strong vocal performances. Brendan Ochs was excellent as the brash soldier falling in love with his chosen pawn in an unsavory game. He sings well, but I really enjoy his acting. Brendan projects an affable, everyman quality that makes him extremely versatile. Those qualities were evident here as he smoothly transitioned from cocky Marine to reluctant dogfight participant to earnest boyfriend material. He was quite affecting in the final scene, breaking down in Shannon Cothran’s arms. Shannon was terrific herself, filling the Tower Grove Abbey where Stray Dog runs their shows with her beautiful voice and showcasing her comedic abilities in a highly memorable scene with Brendan at a fancy restaurant. Luke Steingruby seemed to relish the opportunity to play an asshole, while Kevin O’Brien was perfect as the bombastic yet naive man-child. The ensemble of Jason Meyers, Mike Hodges, Sean Michael, Ethan Isaac, Belinda Quimby, Melanie Kozak, and Jenni Ryan harmonized beautifully, and some have small speaking parts that they all handled with ease. I particularly enjoyed Jason Meyers, who plays five different parts and none better than the snobby waiter, and Melanie Kozak who has always dazzled with her lush voice whenever I’ve seen her on various St. Louis stages. I am eager to see what she can do in a lead role.

From the always fun and functional Rob Lippert set to the capable house band let by keyboardist Chris Petersen, DOGFIGHT did not disappoint. The cast drew approving “awws” as the Rose and Eddie’s romance blossomed, gasps during the intense final moments of combat and roars of laughter throughout the show, even with rather light attendance on a rare Wednesday night performance. Weekend performances are sure to be a tough ticket, so plan ahead. DOGFIGHT runs through October 24, 2015, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm and a 2 pm matinee on October 24. Tower Grove Abbey is located at 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis, MO 63104, and more information about their shows as well as tickets can be found at http://www.straydogtheatre.org/.  Like them on Facebook too! 

Grade: 
4.5 / 5.0