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‘Dogfight’ musical captures the ache of love and war

In many ways, “Dogfight” is a classic story of naive young men heading off to war. Full of macho bravura, but increasingly terrified about the perilous reality ahead of them, they are desperate to cram in just a few more hours of adventure, experience and sex (if not love) before they ship out. But because this show’s backdrop is the Vietnam War — a conflict that unfolded during a chaotic period on “the homefront,” and one that had a shameful record when it came to the treatment of returning soldiers — it comes with a darker and somewhat less sentimental edge than usual.

This intimate musical, which debuted at New York’s Second Stage Theatre in 2012, and is now receiving its Chicago premiere by BoHo Theatre, features a fervent (at times Sondheim-inflected) score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and a book by Peter Duchan based on Bob Comfort’s screenplay for the 1991 film of the same name. And while it takes the show some time to find its footing, it ultimately makes its way straight to the heart.

Emily Goldberg plays Rose and Garrett Lutz plays Birdlace in the musical “Dogfight,” presented by BoHo Theatre. (Photo: Amy Boyle Photography)
Emily Goldberg plays Rose and Garrett Lutz plays Birdlace in the musical “Dogfight,” presented by BoHo Theatre. (Photo: Amy Boyle Photography)

‘DOGFIGHT’

Recommended

When: Through Oct. 18

Where: BoHoTheatre

at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont

Tickets: $27-$30

Info: (773) 975-8150;

www.BoHoTheatre.com

Run time: 1 hour and 50 minutes

with one intermission

It begins with the return of Eddie Birdlace (Garrett Lutz in a finely wired portrayal of a boy who is not yet a man), a Marine who has clearly suffered some injuries and lost his youthful spirit. The “prequel” to his story unspools as he rides a bus back to San Francisco in search of the girl, Rose Fenny (a touching, heartfelt, ideally unaffected turn by Emily Goldberg), he left behind.

The time is late November 1963, just before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when Martin Luther King Jr. was leading the civil rights movement, and the folk anthems of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan were all the rage. Birdlace and his pals — the swaggering Boland (Matt Frye), and the nerdy Bernstein (Nick Graffagna) — have just finished basic training and are about to be sent to Vietnam. Before they leave they decide to engage in a despicably sexist ritual contest known as the Dogfight in which the goal is to win a pot of money for showing up at a dance with the ugliest girl they can find.

Birdlace pursues Rose, an amateur folksinger on the streets, who works as a waitress at her mom’s diner and has dreams of joining the Peace Corps, to be his “date.” Rose is smart but shy, with a potent mix of low self-esteem and romantic hope. Wholly unaware of the perverse game she is being lured into, and drawn to Birdlace, she excitedly accompanies him to the party, gets sick from her first taste of alcohol, and finally learns what the whole evening has really been about. Devastated and furious, she runs home.

Nick Graffagna (from left), Garrett Lutz and Matt Frye in the BoHo Theatre production of “Dogfight.” (Photo: Amy Boyle Photography)
Nick Graffagna (from left), Garrett Lutz and Matt Frye in the BoHo Theatre production of “Dogfight.” (Photo: Amy Boyle Photography)

In the musical’s second (and stronger) act, Birdlace, who has actually grown fond of Rose, and rightly feels like a rat, pursues her at home, makes his best effort at an apology, and takes her to dinner at a posh restaurant where his boorishness is once again in evidence. But this time Rose is in charge, and a relationship begins to blossom in the final hours before Birdlace must leave for Vietnam.

Under the sensitive direction of Peter Marston Sullivan — with music director Ellen K. Morris leading a fine five-piece band, and punchy military moves choreographed by Stephen Schellhardt — the cast gives its all. Frye and Graffagna are in fine tragicomic form as the opposite types who nevertheless bond as Marines, and Mary Kate Young is full of sass as Marcy, a hooker with a secret. Adding zest in supporting roles are Carisa Gonzalez, Jillian Weingart, Matt Provencal, Peter Robel, Neil Stratman, and Travis Austin Wright. Patrick Ham’s effective two-story, red steel set (lit by Nicole Malmquist, with projections by Tony Churchill and costumes by Theresa Ham) transitions easily through many different scenes.

For those with memories of the Vietnam War era, this show is sure to have special poignance, although the more wars change, the more human nature remains the same.