While the Hayes Theatre Co production of Dogfight suffered from a multitude of small problems, on opening night, the strength of the material carried the show through to half a house worth of a standing ovation. The cast performed well, the music was tight, but unfortunately there was a lot to be improved on, starting mainly with sound elements of the show.
Though Pasek & Paul’s cult score was performed to a high degree of skill by both band and actors, much of it was lost in the competition of which element could be the loudest at any one time. Important lines were lost as the musicians played their hardest, and smaller instruments were drowned out by larger, more resonant ones. At a moment in the show where a leading character was delivering a passionate belt less than a meter away from my face, the enhanced sound coming from the speakers rendered me completely unable to hear the natural voice coming from his mouth.
Speaking of natural voices, boy, did this cast have them. Although pitchy at several times during the show, the vocal talent was undeniable, especially in the male ensemble numbers (of which there are plenty). Portraying a group of “jarheads” (marines) on their last night before being shipped off to the Vietnam War, the male ensemble did an incredible job of portraying the historically correct and unbelievably cruel group behaviour of men who have violence and self-aggrandising heroism on the brain.
While Dogfight is not itself a misogynistic (woman hating) show, much of the behaviour shown within it is. While we are encouraged to allow the leading male character (Eddie Birdlace, played by Luigi Lucente) redemption through small acts of kindness and an eventual plot development of survivors guilt and PTSD, it was interesting to see the reaction of multiple female audience members to the material being presented on stage. I watched as some women (myself included) slowly turned from entertained by the performances to angered at the treatment of the women involved in the dogfight, a tradition passed down from generation to generation in the armed forces, whereby fighting men enter money into a pot and bring the “ugliest” woman they can find to a party, to be judged on their looks. The winning man wins the pot, and the woman gets to go home broken hearted if they discover the game before the end of the night. I was delighted when half the audience burst into applause mid-scene when Rose Fenny (Hilary Cole) lashed out and physically attacked the character that had treated her so cruelly. This, I believe, is the true power of Dogfight – it is a show that is written by men, from a male perspective, and dominated by male characters, but the men are never cleared of the wrong doing of their despicable acts. In a time when so many “feminist” shows make apologies for the behaviour of men in order to continue their arc of being a romantic lead, Dogfight stays true to life and allows the audience their own right of judgement.
Costumes were suited to the time period of the piece, and minimal set pieces were used effectively to construct different locations, but unfortunately the tiny amount of choreography in the show was interpreted loosely by the actors, meaning that the normally flawless execution of group gun formation was performed instead on all different beats of the music. This may have been due to the rigid formation of military style beats in Pasek and Paul’s score without a conductor for actors to see, but looks as though it could be something that is fixed over time, when the cast become more settled into the show.
Hilary Cole as Rose Fenny was a standout. Managing to create a gentle voice against the overwhelming anger and entitlement of the military men, Ms. Cole advocated the peace and love within Rose beautifully. While her performance was compelling and to a very high standard, I could not help but feel that this role was not quite suited to Ms. Cole… The casting felt a little off in regards to the story, because no matter how badly maintained her fringe (in addition to allowing Rose a place to hide from unwanted attention, the fringe also served as a giant lighting problem, keeping Ms. Cole’s eyes and nose in shadows until the final scene of the show) it was not enough to convince the audience that she could be an unknowing competitor in the dogfight. While Rose’s awkward and shy qualities came through in Ms. Cole’s lovely performance, this role is one of the few within the musical theatre industry that could have been given without complaint to a larger sized performer, or a woman considered by the industry to not be “conventionally attractive”.
Applause are deserved by the band, with fantastic effort being exerted by each musician to play a complicated and very catchy score. Although, as previously mentioned, there were problems with the delivery of sound, the music was at a perfect tempo and served as the only way to soften the blow of most of the harsh material in the show. While dialogue only scenes were truly horrifying (in particular, a scene where a marine beats a prostitute for refusing his advances), music served as a slight reprieve, especially during more private scenes with Rose and Eddie.
Yes, there were problems, but that should not stop you from attending the Hayes Theatre to catch this production of Dogfight. As Neil Gooding, the director of Dogfight says in his program note, “Shows like DOGFIGHT would have struggled to find a home a few years ago. For such a simple black box theatre, it always feel(s) like there is a little bit of magic present in this (the Hayes Theatre Co) building.” Hayes Theatre Co and all involved in bringing such a well loved but potentially risky show to Australia deserve to be congratulated on their efforts. Without risks being taken on shows like this one, the Australian theatre scene would not grow and evolve to contain musicals that discuss such heavy themes as those explored in Dogfight. In the words of a recent social media update from a friend, #blessthehayes