Thanks to a tuneful score from a writing team six years out of the University of Michigan, the first new musical of the 2012-13 New York theater season is an unconventional if unfinished treat.
“Dogfight,” at off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre, concerns marines in San Francisco on November 21, 1963, the night before they’re to be shipped out to Vietnam. The aim of the “dogfight” is to find the least attractive date and bring her to a nightclub, the winning jarhead eligible for a cash prize.
Eddie Birdlace (Derek Klena), angry and profane, finds Rose (Lindsay Mendez), a chubby, sensitive waitress and folk music singer. When she learns later about the competition, she’s infuriated. But as Eddie’s buddies pursue tattoos and other rites of passage, his eyes open to her world and they seek common ground.
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s stylistically eclectic score is firmly in the post-Sondheim tradition. Choreographer Christopher Gattelli, who won a Tony Award last month for “Newsies,” nicely adapts military moves for dance. He and director Joe Mantello (“Wicked”) make efficient use of the revolving round stage as set and costume designer David Zinn transforms it from a nightclub to ladies room to tattoo parlor.
The supporting players are excellent, particularly the appealingly eccentric Annaleigh Ashford in multiple roles, and jaunty Nick Blaemire, who like Mendez was in last season’s revival of “Godspell.”
Two years before he died at 23 of drug-related heart failure, River Phoenix was magnetic in the lyrical 1991 movie of the same name. The stage show lacks the chemistry Phoenix had with Lili Taylor, the movie’s Rose. That’s despite Mendez’s obvious talent, vulnerability and resemblance to Taylor. The Eddie character is less specific and sympathetic.
Peter Duchan’s book is practically a facsimile of the film, reproducing gag after gag and line after line while curiously omitting the presidential assassination that haunts the film. And the second act drags, ending with a blunt anti-war message contrasting with the movie’s subtler punch as the hero returns to a San Francisco transformed by the counterculture.
“Wicked” producer David Stone successfully took “Next to Normal” from Second Stage to Washington’s Arena Stage before bringing it to Broadway. “Dogfight” might benefit from a similar roundabout route.
Through Aug. 19 at 305 W. 43rd St. Information: +1-212-246-4422; http://www.2st.com. Rating: **
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Muse highlights include on Scott Reyburn on auctions and Craig Seligman on books.