An ugly con­cept that’s beau­ti­fully re­alised

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

DOG­FIGHT

South­wark Play­house, Lon­don SE1

THE TI­TLE does not re­fer to a Top Gun battl e i n t he s ky, nor a snarling pit of ca­nines. Rather, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s mu­si­cal, first seen in New York in 2012, is about a cruel com­pe­ti­tion con­ducted by a squad of Amer­i­can marines to date the ugli­est girl. It’s a love story.

Peter Duchan’s book — based on the 1991 River Phoenix movie — struc­tures the show as a mem­ory mu­si­cal mostly set in 1963 San Fran­cisco, just be­fore the soldiers’ first tour of duty in Viet­nam. Lee Newby’s de­sign of the Golden Gate Bridge dom­i­nates, but I couldn’t help think­ing that he would have done bet­ter to fo­cus on an engi­neer­ing de­tail rather t h a n t h e whole thing. Those huge nuts and bolts that bridges are­builtwith­would­have­saidalot­more about scale than this stunted ver­sion of the icon.

Pasek and Paul’s pretty and of­ten beau­ti­ful score be­lies the nas­ti­ness of the story’s con­ceit. In some ways it is the an­ti­dote. The kind of eardrum­split­ting an­thems that im­i­ta­tors and orig­i­na­tors of West End hits of­ten churn out would have given the au­di­ence no emo­tional refuge for the hu­mil­i­a­tion of sweet diner wait­ress Rose (Laura Jane Matthew­son), who is

SOME OF THE MOST IM­PRES­SIVE SING­ING ON ANY LON­DON STAGE

the prey of meat-headed ma­rine Ed­die Bird­lace (a ter­rific Jamie Mus­cato).

But Pasek and Paul are sev­eral cuts above that lot. There is, it’s true, the oc­ca­sional song here that (al­most in­evitably for a show with melodic and lyri­cal am­bi­tion) sounds as though writ­ten by huge fans of Sond­heim. In other moments, I thought I could hear strains of the Sheik and Sater mu­si­cal ver­sion of Spring Awak­en­ing, which is still prob­a­bly the best new mu­si­cal score of this cen­tury (where is their next show?).

Still, as Pi­casso said, bad artists copy, good artists steal and in its best moments Dog­fight achieves an ec­stasy that leaves no doubt that Pasek and Paul are very good. The ti­tle song, typ­i­cal of the mu­sic’s in­ven­tive­ness, is a quite won­der­ful duet of power sing­ing and fi­nesse de­liv­ered by Matthew­son in her pro­fes­sional de­but and Re­becca Tre­hearn as the hooker hired by another ma­rine to win the ugly com­pe­ti­tion.

The six-piece band, perched higher than one of the bridge’s sus­pen­sion ca­bles, is a beau­ti­fully bal­anced group. Un­der Ge­orge Dyer’s mu­si­cal di­rec­tion, it kicks hard when rock ’n’ roll num­bers de­mand it but has the heart of a string quar­tet. And Matt Ryan’s pro­duc­tion ex­pertly steers the show through scenes of male bravado and

ten­der courtship.

But, apart from mu­sic de­serv­ing all the recog­ni­tion it re­ceived in New York a cou­ple of years ago, the over­rid­ing virtue of this show’s UK de­but is that it boasts some of the most im­pres­sive sing­ing to be found on any Lon­don stage, in­clud­ing the cur­rent slew of West End mu­si­cals. Bet­ter still, it has a cast pop­u­lated by rel­a­tive or com­plete un­knowns, prov­ing that the tal­ent pool for per­form­ers in mu­si­cals here is deep, deeper than it is for com­posers.

Laura Jane Matthew­son in Dog­fight

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