NEW YORK — Of all the movies out there, the indie "Dogfight" seems an unlikely source for a musical. For one, it's a moody character study. For another, it's about a mean-spirited prank that leads to an awkward first date.
Yet the playwright Peter Duchan and musical-theater songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul found something special in the little-seen 1991 flick that starred River Phoenix and Lili Taylor. Good thing they did.
The musical "Dogfight," which made its world premiere Monday at Second Stage Theatre, is a sweet show studded with impressive songs from a deservedly up-and-coming duo. It bites off a little more than it can chew and runs out of steam by the end, but it never loses its genuine and charming soul.
"Dogfight" tells the story of three Marines in San Francisco on the eve of being deployed to Vietnam in 1963 who dream up a nasty contest: Each man contributes $50 to a pot, and whoever brings the ugliest date that night to a bar wins the prize.
But the contest sparks an unexpected love affair between the hot-tempered Eddie Birdlace – a committed Derek Klena, late of "Carrie" – and Rose, a sweet, homely and insecure waitress – played and sung with honest beauty by a dynamite Lindsay Mendez, who was in the Broadway revival of "Godspell."
Stung by how awful he's been, Birdlace begins to woo Rose and convinces her to go to dinner. Why does she go with him? "`Cause if I didn't, I'd just be what you thought I was," she tells him. "A lonely, pathetic, ugly fat girl. That's all I'd be."
If there's a clue that the twenty-something creators are on to something in this 296-seat off-Broadway theater, it's in the rest of the veteran creative team: Joe Mantello, a two-time Tony Award winner, is directing, and Christopher Gatelli, who just won a Tony for "Newsies," is choreographing. David Zinn is in charge of sets and costume, fresh off Broadway's "Seminar," "Other Desert Cities" and "Good People."
They've combined to create an energetic, use-all-the-set show that veers from quiet and intimate to thundering with enough energy you'll feel it shake the seats when the Marines are jumping up and down. Zinn's two-level set has a built-in revolving part of the stage – useful when actors take long walks – and neon signs that indicate where the action is taking place.
Pasek and Paul show real maturity and variety in their songs, with the stand-outs including the "On the Town" hat-tip "Some Kinda Time" and two great duets, "First Date/Last Night" between the confused lovers, and "Dogfight," between Rose and a hooker (Annaleigh Ashford, very close to stealing every scene).
The budding love affair between the never-been-kissed waitress and the gruff Marine is augmented by darting explorations elsewhere – the nature of masculinity, fathers, violence against women, and warriors' homecomings – that seem somewhat halfhearted. The ending is realistic, but slightly underwhelming. You might be forgiven for wanting one more rousing song.
Making the film "Dogfight" into a musical was an unusual choice but somehow the actors and creative team pull off a moving show. Or, as the lyrics to one song put it, "Sorta strange/kinda bizarre/but not a big disaster/so far." Actually, not by far.