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Review: Before ‘La La Land’ and ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ there was ‘Dogfight’

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Nicci Claspell and Payson Lewis in the After Hours Theatre Company production of “Dogfight” at the Hudson Mainstage in Hollywood.
(Nicole Priest Photography)

The music and lyrics in “Dogfight,” now at the Hudson Mainstage, are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the songwriting team nominated for a Tony Award for their Broadway sensation “Dear Evan Hansen” and Academy Award winners for their work on “La La Land.”

“Dogfight,” which won the 2013 Lucille Lortel Award for outstanding musical, is so consummately rendered in this L.A. production that, though not perfect, it nonetheless dazzles with unexpected sweetness.

The story is set in 1963 San Francisco — not coincidentally, the day before John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Marines Boland (Spencer Strong Smith), Bernstein (Trent Mills) and Eddie Birdlace (Payson Lewis) are best buddies who are shipping out tomorrow for the as-yet-little-known country of Vietnam.

Spencer Strong Smith, left, Payson Lewis and Trent Mills in "Dogfight."
Spencer Strong Smith, left, Payson Lewis and Trent Mills in "Dogfight." (Nicole Priest Photography)

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Largely clueless about what their futures hold, the guys set out on a wild all-night spree. But first, the men must compete in the “proud” Marine tradition of the dogfight, a high-stakes contest to see who can scrounge up the ugliest date. (The women, of course, are oblivious to the fact that they are the butts of the evening’s heartless entertainment.)

Eddie doesn’t question the remarkably cruel custom until he asks appealingly sincere waitress Rose (Nicci Claspell) to be his date. Stricken with shame when Rose learns the secret behind the night, Eddie sets out to make amends — and unlikely romance results.

The show, based on a 1991 film by the same name, is marred by a jarringly abrupt ending, but it does cannily capture American society on the brink of tectonic change. Eddie may start out as a figure of repugnant chauvinism, but he emerges as a sympathetic victim, trapped in a macho archetype that serves him ill. Rose seems poised on the brink of glorious transformation in a new era of redefined expectations and roles for women.

The cast, onstage band and designers are splendid. Musical director Elmo Zapp does marvels with his strong singers, while Claspell and Lewis deliver heartfelt turns guaranteed to wrench a few tears. However, it is co-directors Jennifer Strattan and Jennifer Oundjian (the latter also choreographs) who are the true standouts of the evening. A miracle of purposefulness and intention, their staging hits all the high notes and the low notes of a complicated era.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Dogfight’

Where: Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; ends June 25

Tickets: $40

Info: www.plays411.com/dogfight

Running time: 2 hours

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