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They’re barely 30, but the songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have already made a tidy career of reworking popular properties for the musical comedy stage. Their credits include the kid-targeted James and the Giant Peach (based on the Roald Dahl classic) and If You Give a Pig a Pancake; A Christmas Story, in which the holiday classic’s leg lamp, Chinese restaurant, and BB gun all get the tuner treatment; and Dogfight, adapted from the pitch-perfect 1991 cult film starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor. All of them have been received with reasonable appetite, with A Christmas Story even earning a limited Yule-season Broadway run and a Tony Award nomination for Best Score.
So it was medium-sized theater-biz news when D.C.’s Arena Stage and a New York backer announced plans for this summer’s staging of the first major production of an entirely original Pasek-and-Paul property. It must be noted that Dear Evan Hansen, which shared both a director and an Arena tryout production with a certain Pulitzer Prize-winning psychodrama, would prove derivative enough to be dubbed Next to Next to Normal by one unimpressed Washington theater wag.
No matter: Evan Hansen drew largely positive reviews, provided a sterling showcase for winsome Pitch Perfect co-star Ben Platt, and landed the writer-composer duo another off-Broadway production at New York’s Second Stage, where Dogfight had its 2012 premiere. This means the people at D.C.’s Keegan Theatre weren’t dummies when, however many months ago, they booked the latter show for their current season. Pasek and Paul are tagged more plainly than ever as a pair of the musical theater’s Next Big Things.
Here’s hoping success won’t turn them into anything like the brutes they and book-writer Peter Duchan have made of PFC Eddie Birdlace and his buddies—U.S. Marines out on the town in San Francisco for one last night of rowdiness before their deployment to “a little country near India, called Vietnam.” Said evening includes a “dogfight,” the Marine Corps tradition of a party thrown for sport, with a cash prize going to the jarhead who brings the ugliest date.
Birdlace, played in the film by Phoenix at the peak of his broody-vulnerable appeal, picks a mousy, musically inclined waitress, portrayed by a quietly luminous Taylor with a nervy stammer and a surprisingly steely core. Struck on the way to the dance club by Rose’s openness and her utter lack of guile, Eddie thinks better of the cruel game just as they arrive, but Rose’s enthusiasm carries them inside, where peer pressure pushes him to carry things through to the inevitably ugly conclusion. Emotional fallout ensues, as does a punch to Eddie’s face, but to his credit, boy has come to actually care about girl, and he sets out to earn a second chance; there’s a fence to climb, a German shepherd to outfox, and a sneering maitre-d’ to stare down. After these heroics, he and Rose have gotten to like each other sufficiently for her to invite him upstairs. Improbably—hell, impossibly—the movie makes this meet-ugly, make-it-cute scenario work to this day.
In adding an hour’s worth of (mostly musical) material to the 90-minute screenplay, though, Pasek, Paul, and Duchan have coarsened its delicate portrait of a sensitive young couple considerably. Luxuriously expressive lulls that the film uses to let the actors work wordlessly on the audience’s affections have been excised to make room for number after energetic number about the unsurpassed masculinity and foregone-conclusion heroism of Birdlace and his comrades. There are only Three B’s in the musical, down one from the film’s four brothers-in-arms, but they somehow take up more oxygen: Duchan has inexplicably tilted the book’s balance away from a primary emphasis on Eddie and Rose, making it just as much about Eddie and his bros. For some reason, he’s made the bros even more repulsive than the originals, too; where they treat themselves to a brawl and a bargain blowjob in the movie, the stage version has them patronize a prostitute and then threaten to gang-rape her when she declares herself too exhausted to handle the final booking. It’s as though Duchan decided that Bob Comfort’s original screenplay needed a healthy dose of Brechtian alienation.
The unremittingly noisy production at Keegan isn’t doing anyone—creators or characters—any favors either. Christina A. Coakley and Michael Innocenti use the high-ceilinged Keegan space adeptly enough, with an assist from a stage-spanning platform that suggests both the Marines’ transit terminal and the Golden Gate Bridge, and the cast, anchored by Tiziano D’Affuso and Isabelle Smelkinson, doesn’t embarrass itself or the material. But there’s not a nuance from start to finish, and whoever’s in charge of the musical mix (shall we blame sound designer Dan Deiter, or musical director Jake Null?) manages to place some voices too far forward of the six-piece band and some so far behind it that their lines are near-inaudible.
Over the river and through some ’hoods, a rock musical called The Fix is getting a second production at the Signature Theatre, where Les Miz megaproducer Cameron Mackintosh backed its U.S. premiere in 1998, insisting despite its London flop that the quintessentially American show had good bones. New York never bit on The Fix, though, which means creators John Dempsey and Dana Rowe have had reason to keep tweaking it and tweaking it and tweaking it—so who knows, [although the City Paper’s Rebecca Ritzel has her doubts,] it may one day amount to something. Dogfight has already been enough of a success that I wonder whether Pasek and Paul will ever have an incentive to take their eyes off the Broadway prize and give it the overhaul that could make it a first-rate show. For Eddie and Rose’s sake, I kind of hope so.
The play runs through Sept. 19 at Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church Street, NW. $35–$45. (202) 265-3767. keegantheatre.com.
Handout photos courtesy Keegan Theatre