Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Album Review: DOGFIGHT

I can't think of a better way to kick off this blog than by reviewing Dogfight, the new cast album featuring the original Second Stage cast. Dogfight, with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and book by Peter Duchan, is the new chamber musical based on the 1991 film of the same name starring River Phoenix and Lilli Taylor... and knowing what the film is about makes you wonder how the hell it could possibly work as a musical.

It's 1963, the day before The Kennedy Assassination and the day before a bunch of Marines get shipped off. A particular group of Marines, featuring 'The Three Bees' (Birdlace, Bernstein, and Boland), decide to let loose for their final night in the country by hosting an unspeakably cruel contest called the "dogfight", in which each Marine bets on who can find the ugliest possible woman to bring to a party as their date... and the guy with the ugliest date wins the pot. The thing is, none of these girls know what the true nature of the party is, and hopefully never will. Eddie Birdlace, one of the Three Bees, finds Rose Fenny working in a diner in town. Rose, a sensitive and awkward introvert, falls for Birdlace's charm and she eventually gets coaxed into attending the party. But when Rose finds out what's really going on and leaves the party heartbroken and humiliated, Birdlace soon chases her down and an unlikely love story evolves.

What first makes this cast album so appealing is the incredible cast that, to a fan of the new rising talent on Broadway, will turn out to be musical theatre heaven. Derek Klena (Carrie, Wicked), Lindsay Mendez (Godspell, Everyday Rapture, 35MM), F. Michael Haynie (Wicked), Steven Booth (Glory Days), Nick Blaemire (Godspell), Annaleigh Ashford (Legally Blonde, Kinky Boots), and more! Klena, an impressive newcomer who made his New York theatre debut in the MCC revival of Carrie, plays Eddie Birdlace with enough antagonism that we hate him in Act I, but with enough vulnerability and heart that he's capable of winning us over at his turn in Act II. His intense 'Come Back', sung upon returning from Vietnam a changed man, exhibits his impressive vocal chops. As Rose Fenny, Birdlace's 'ugly' yet beautiful Dogfight date, Mendez is simply stunning (and, for the record, stunningly beautiful in real life). Known for her rockin' Alto belt, she displays a refreshing restraint as Rose, a virtually belt-less role, and her Act I closer 'Pretty Funny' is a heartbreaker.

And, of course, we have to talk about the songs themselves. It is no exaggeration to say that this is one of, if not THE strongest original score to emerge in at least a year. Songwriting team Pasek and Paul have proven themselves to be talents to watch out for with their song cycle Edges and their Broadway musical version of the classic movie A Christmas Story. With Dogfight, they've crafted a contemporary pop-rock score that's at once rockin', funny, heartbreaking, beautiful, and toe-tappingly catchy. It's rare to find a score that doesn't have one single dud of a song, but that's Dogfight. You've got bro-songs with tight male harmonies, moving ballads, folk music, and some good ol' theatrical pop-rock. If you're a sucker for high-belting males, this is your Utopia, my friend... high A's, B's, and C's abound in eargasmic harmony. Though it's difficult to pick favourites, stand-out songs include:

- The gorgeous and addictive First Date/Last Night, which is destined to become THE new male/female duet in cabarets everywhere.

- The catchy Hometown Hero's Ticker Tape Parade, which features those sweet male harmonies and builds to a point that leaves you totally satisfied.

- The heart-breaking Pretty Funny, where a humiliated Rose returns to her bedroom after discovering the true nature of the dogfight and beats herself up over it. Try not at least getting teary-eyed the first time you hear this one.

- The soaring Before It's Over, Rose's gorgeous Act II ballad.

Other highlights include the Sondheim-esque arrhythmic patter song Nothing Short of Wonderful, the haunting Act II reprise of Some Kinda Time, and the intensely powerful Come Back. But, as I said, it's difficult to pick favourites since every single song is terrific. Also, big tip of the hat to orchestrator Michael Starobin who has turned this score into something even more special.

The songs, and full album for that matter, warrant such strong replay value not just because the songs are terrific, but also because each one is short and sweet. None of them overstay their welcome, with most clocking in around 3 minutes in length with the longest of the bunch being only about 4 minutes long. They leave you both totally satisfied but also wanting more at the same time. This is truly a must-have for fans of new musical theatre, and a strong indicator that the future of Broadway is in more than capable hands. Bravo.

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