By Erika Brown Thomas
The publicity of BoHo Theatre’s current production of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s musical Dogfight features a WWII-era beauty poised on an American bomber airplane. The name “Rose” is scribbled next to her with an added “ + Eddie.”
While this musical really is an atypical love story set during Vietnam Era America, BoHo’s production of Dogfight get’s it right: Rose is the truest symbol for this show. She comes through as the symbol of everlasting beauty that her name gives her. Her blossoming confidence after Eddie shows an interest in her is destroyed right there in the midst of Act 1, only to see a truer confidence—one not grown in another man’s affections—be born. Pasek and Paul have created a modern, honest and inspiring female character with both grit and vulnerabilities; and BoHo’s production highlights all of this.
While the show’s score celebrates the machismo of the young soldiers about to go off to war, the blanket of male ego, chauvinism and greed is laid on thick—too thick. The characters are so ugly that it is hard for the audience to forgive the main character, Eddie Birdlace, by the time the story demands for audiences to do so. It is difficult to tell if this issue is inherent in the script or if BoHo’s production slightly missed the mark by playing the negativity too strong too soon. For those interested, more can be read about the off-broadway production or the original movie that provided the inspiration for the show, here.
Regardless, Director Peter Marston Sullivan effectively weaves the audience through the many jumps in setting and time that this story needs. Moreover, choreographer Stephen Schellhardt utilizes the tight space in the Theatre Wit to his advantage. He has the boys jumping around the stage, filling the space with their bravado from the start. The first number of the show promises audiences that the ensemble numbers will be lively and clever, with a creative use of physical arrangements throughout. Juxtaposed with the simplicity of a romantic walk through San Francisco as the couple goes “bum, bum, bum…,” the variety in the show is effectively enticing.
Emily Goldberg as Rose is enigmatic, truthful and committed. She wins over the audience with her full-bodied voice and winsome smile. While the actress appears physically stifled at times—perhaps an acting choice for her character’s awkwardness—her voice swathes the audience throughout the entirety of the production with its smooth, warm tone. As a casting choice, Goldberg is far too beautiful to truly be considered a candidate for the ugliest date contest from which the show derives its title. But once audiences accept that Rose really could be any girl wondering if she’ll find love, Goldberg’s portrayal of the character shines. She is able to muster all the strength and honesty for the character to defy Eddie’s expectations of her, and yet she still breaks the audience’s hearts as she sings “Pretty Funny” at the close of Act 1.
Garrett Lutz’s Eddie Birdlace is full of swagger, spite and an edgy, powerful voice to match his character. In fact, the trio of leading men sound unstoppable when singing together. It is evident that music director Ellen K. Morris skillfully challenged her cast, for their tight harmonies and strong ensemble singing blow the house away. The three B’s, upon singing one of their signature songs, picked their notes and harmonies out of thin air, only to build into one of the most rousing numbers of the first act.
That being said, Morris’ work truly shines through the perfection of the pit orchestra. Pasek and Paul’s moving score comes to life in the hands of these musicians. Specifically, audiences will hear the strings lightly unfold in certain pieces and envelop the audience entirely in others, echoing the aching hopefulness that lives in both Eddie and Rose.
It is clear that BoHo Theatre is interested in creating work that stands on a strong musical landscape, for the music continues to impress throughout the production. Since other theatres in Chicago have yet to feature these new aspiring writers as much, audiences can get a strong glimpse of their prowess through this production.
BoHo’s production team worked hard to create a Vietnam War era mood. While some of these choices might actually prevent some of the humor in the show from getting its play, it certainly helps lead up to explosive moments of tension and chaos late in the show when Eddie and his friends fight in Vietnam, and also when he returns to the USA.
Sound Designer Amanda Hosking is largely responsible for the success of these pivotal moments. The deafening sounds of war create a cacophony that, in the end, leave Eddie Birdlace with the difficult fate of surviving the war when his friends didn’t. Lighting Designer Nicole Malmquist and Projection Designer Tony Churchill also work in conjunction to contribute to these intense moods, but also transport the audience from place to place throughout the show. One of the projections that makes the most sense is that of a slightly moving landscape of the San Francisco Bridge, whose cloudy images and softly translucent colors help make the scene feel exactly as it should.
Chicagoland patrons should see this production to experience a musically strong presentation of a new musical.
BoHo Theatre’s production of Dogfight runs through October 18 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets are available online here, in person at the Theater Wit box office or by phone at (773) 975-8150.