Dogfight at Western Reserve Playhouse Manages to Make Everyone a Winner

Review by: Kevin Kelly
I remember when I was in grade school gym class, they would have to split up the teams through something called “Shirts and Skins.” It was horrible for two reasons, One, I always ended up being a skin, which is with my shirt off. and Two, I was always the last to be picked. I hated it. It certainly was the beginning of my first complex. Being judged by other people was not the best emotional experience to have at such a young age. I couldn’t change who I was, or how I looked at the time, and up until that moment of being a fat kid without a shirt on pretending to be excited that you got picked for a team when you know something was terribly wrong because you felt like shit afterward. Well the musical Dogfight, currently enjoying a very solid production at Western Reserve Playhouse, certainly triggered some uncomfortable memories. The production does not shy away from the issues at hand, nor the surrounding atmospheric disturbance addressed which is the Vietnam War.
In 1991, Nancy Savoca directed the film “Dogfight” which was written by Bob Comfort. The movie talked about Marines who planned a “Dogfight” before they were deployed to Vietnam. The referenced fight was a cruel game where each marine would go out and try to find the ugliest girl, and bring them to a bar and then dance with them as the girls were judged as to the winner, which was not a congratulatory gesture for the unknowing women involved. The Marine who won got to win the pot of money that each contestant contributed to. This is the material that was used for this musical adaptation of the story. It enjoys the brilliant talents of musicians Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The current Broadway darlings having just written the music for “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway. The book was delivered by Peter Duchan.
The show begins in 1967, where Eddie Birdlace (Kyle Burnett), as U.S. Marine, is returning from San Francisco. During his ride, he reflects back to the memories of a waitress Rose Fenny (Kimberly Sullivan), where the show becomes a flashback of his tumultuous past. Now, we are transported to a bus full of Marines, fresh out of training and arriving in San Francisco for a night out. Birdlace and his two wingmen Boland (Maximillan Winer) and Bernstein (Zachery Palumbo), who together like to call themselves The Three Bees, are ready to initiate a dogfight that night by throwing in $50 a piece, winner take all. All the Marines are in, and off to scour the town for unsuspecting females.
Birdlace ends up in the diner, where he meets Rose, a waitress. He woos her a bit and decides she is a good contestant for the dogfight. She is naive, a virgin, and ready for a date that she rarely ever gets a chance to have. On the other hand, Boland invites Marcy (Nian Takacs), a wisecracking, fishnet loving, breast line plunging prostitute that is up for the challenge as long as she gets paid as well. Bernstein finds himself with Ruth Two Bears (Kaleigh Velette). She of Indian descent and the strength of two bears, as you will find out on the dance floor.
As the party progresses, Birdlace has a change of heart and tries to change plans, but Rose takes that as he is embarrassed by her, so after much discussion, he relents and they go in. The judged dance begins sung by the Lounge Singer (Kevin Cline), and eventually, Marcy wins, as well as her handler Boland. However, in a girls moment in the women’s bathroom, Marcy shares with Rose what is really going on, which causes Rose to confront Birdlace, and returns home defeated and devastated. Now its time for last call and the Marines head out to have their way with prostitutes, but Birdlace is too wrecked about what happened and returns to Rose to apologize and start over by going to dinner.
After dinner, they take in a romantic view from the Golden Gate Bridge, and return home to experience their “first time,” It is also the first time to fully appreciate that she wants to be judged by who she is, and not what people want or think she should be. The next morning, he leaves, and unfortunately, it is time to deploy.
The deployment is devastating and virtually become the last man standing event. Birdlace returns, as we find him at the beginning of the show, hurt, bitter, broken, and longing to return to the safest moment he can remember. Rose. They reconcile. And for a moment, the world is good.
Burnett gives one of his best performances to date. He is centered, fully committed, and in total control of his storyline. His voice soars when it needs to, and provides quiet sensibility. Winer would definitely be the president of the Marine fraternity. His machismo is infectious, and he knows how to play a dick when need be, and the raucous best friend when you need one. Really great character work. Palumbo is so freaking funny, and adorable. He plays the guy that everyone picks on, but everyone would kill anyone else did the same. He is a complete joy to watch! Great work. Kevin Cline is as flexible as Cirque du Soleil. He plays about 10 characters in this show and each one is dead on with comedic flair, character work, up to tattoo butch realness. His Lounge Singer needs to be booked in every whiskey joint in the area. The Bee Ensemble is great. Stevens (Daniel Hunsicker), Fector (Ben Arrignton), and  Gibbs (Brian Innenberg) provide some kick ass camaraderie, along with Ryan Dyke and Steven Schuerger.
The women bring some power of their own. Sullivan conveys a very poignant interpretation to Rose. Her voice crystal clear and handles the music with efficient ease. She also switches nicely when she has to serve up some reality to Birdlace, in a great display of showing someone’s other side. Embarrassment can be lighter fluid in many of us, and she lets that ring quite clear through her performance. Nice work. It is hard to be the nice girl throughout a show, but she finds the moments to reflect the characters layers nicely. Takacs is on fire as Marcy. I am surprised there is any set left, once she is done chewing on every piece of scenery. She is fiery, funny, and blunt. Her character is great and practically steals the show. Her voice compliments her acting choices well. If they really wanted to end the war, they should air drop Marcy, and she will take care of the front line for sure. Can I just say that having a role that doesn’t say a line, but brings down the house in the funniest way is a tremendous compliment to an actor. This accolade goes to Kaleigh Velette as Ruth Two Bears. The way her character handles Bernstein is a hot mess of comedic brilliance. Bravo. The girls are supported by a resilient company including Micayla Carafelli, Kayla Lehman, and Dorata Zarzycha. Diane Roberts turns in some very nice moments as Mama.
I will say that the theatre still has to work on the mic skills. This has been a consistent problem in past shows, where mics are not on early enough, or just out. After listening and experiencing the war scene, and the tremendous sound work, there has to be a solution. That war fight scene rocked.
This production is well done, interesting and provacative. Helmed by Dawn, the cast is really all in, and throw their raw talents at every piece of material. The show is guided by moments of devastating truth, and humor, which at times, will definitely make you blush. It did me. The Musical Direction is led by David Stebbins, and his band seems to have a blast churning out this exciting score. Stage Manager Whiney Miller called a great show. Technical Director Jim Gremba brought all the elements together nicely. Set design worked well under Sniadak-Yamokoski vision. Costumer Kelsey Tomlinson had a great theme throughout the show and certainly made the dance scene more interesting. Choreographer Elyse Morchel provided just the right moves to the men that worked great, without over choreographing the show. Lighting Design was on point, especially with the war scene. Great stuff. Noah Hrbek turned in a great backdrop of the Golden Gate bridge. Incredible work.
Dogfight was a great choice for this theatre, which is pushing itself to expand the offerings, and build and create different opportunities for patrons.