These days, it seems like nearly every musical was adapted from a movie. Some of my favorite stage musicals began their lives as films—Once, Legally Blonde, and Thoroughly Modern Millie come to mind. Sometimes, however, you can’t help but wonder—why that movie? Dogfight, based on the 1991 movie of the same name with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul of Dear Evan Hansen and La La Land fame, is currently being produced by the After Hours Theatre Company at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre in Los Angeles, and despite the efforts of an incredibly talented cast, I find it a bit baffling that this outdated, sexist story that perpetuates a problematic message was adapted at all.
Dogfight is set primarily in San Francisco in 1963 and opens on a group of young Marines determined to make the most of their final night of freedom before being deployed to Vietnam. Eddie Birdlace (Payson Lewis) and his two best friends, Bernstein (Trent Mills) and Boland (Spencer Strong Smith), are participating in a horrible tradition known as the dogfight—they throw a party, all of the guys bet $50, and whoever brings the ugliest date wins the pot. With under an hour to go and still no date, Eddie happens upon Rose (Nicci Claspell), a shy, awkward musician and waitress at the diner where she works. Target secured, he charms her into agreeing to come to the party with him, not knowing it is her first party invitation ever. Rose is ecstatic, painstakingly choosing an outfit, and Eddie misleads her into seriously overdressing and intentionally tries to sloppily apply lipstick to her face—not just her lips, her face—to up his chances of winning.
It turns out that Rose is a kind, genuine girl, and Eddie briefly has second thoughts, suggesting maybe they shouldn’t go to the party, but Rose insists and he stops protesting without putting up nearly enough of a fight. Once there, Rose very quickly learns the truth from the “winning” girl, Marcy (Emily Morris), and is appropriately heartbroken and offended, angrily telling Eddie and his friends that she hopes they die in the war. Now, had act two been about Rose and Marcy enacting their revenge Thelma & Louise style, I would have been fully on board. But no—instead, Eddie begs for Rose’s forgiveness and asks her on a proper date, and bafflingly, she agrees.
It’s important to note that even aside from participating in a cruel, sexist tradition that hinges on humiliating and degrading women, Eddie is pretty much nothing but a terrible person from start to finish. He’s in desperate need of some anger management classes and repeatedly yells at his friends and treats a random waiter like something he stepped in, even though he doesn’t have enough money to order himself a meal. I understand what the story is going for—by (shockingly!) turning out to be a friendly, smart, normal person, Rose is supposed to be teaching Eddie something about not judging a book by its cover. But that is not how it came across, and I struggled to understand why Rose continues to give him chance after chance when his behavior fails to improve. Even after—and this is a minor spoiler for the ending—Eddie lies to his friends, ashamed to admit he spent the night with Rose, and rips up the paper on which she wrote her address, she still takes him back and gives him a third chance. While the show desperately wants you to root for them as a couple, I find a narrative in which a woman consistently sets aside her own self respect for a man who treats her like dirt to be hugely problematic. I don’t care if the point is to “teach him a lesson,” or if the woman is introverted and naive and has nothing to compare it to—in fact, that makes it worse, and the show almost seemed to be making the argument that going on a date with someone who barely treats you like a human being is better than not going on a date at all. Rose is alternately portrayed as an intuitive person with inner strength and as a total pushover, and while tragedy is meant to make us sympathize with Eddie, he does nothing to earn it.
That being said, Claspell and Lewis are giving two of the strongest, loveliest performances I have seen in local musical theatre in recent memory. Claspell has a beautiful voice and embodied Rose’s quiet charms and wide-eyed optimism perfectly, and Lewis, who has a powerhouse voice of his own and boyish charm for days, tried valiantly to make a thankless character relatable. This is ultimately a bit of a large show for a 99-seat theater—the cast of 15 often made the stage feel crowded, although Jennifer Stratten and Jennifer Oundjian’s direction tried to maximize the use of the space as best as possible. As is to be expected from Pasek and Paul, a lot of the music is quite lovely and catchy, particularly Rose’s big act two number “Before It’s Over” and the upbeat opening group number “Some Kinda Time.” Strong elements, however, can only go so far when the story is this antiquated and problematic. I mean, in a world where a female superhero movie directed by a woman is breaking box office records, I think we can do better.
Dogfight runs at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre through June 25th. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm. The running time is two hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets are $40 and can be purchased at www.plays411.com/dogfight.