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“Semper fi, do or die!” is something of a mantra in the musical “Dogfight,” which follows the struggle of young marine Eddie Birdlace (Derek P. Speedy ’18) as he tries to hold on to his humanity in the hours preceding his deployment to Vietnam. In the musical, the marines have a tradition they call the Dogfight, in which each marine has to find the ugliest girl he can convince to accompany him to a party that evening. The marine whose date is judged to be the most ugly wins the pot. Eddie Birdlace finds the idealistic, inexperienced Rose (Taylor K. Phillips ’15) in a diner and convinces her to come along. When he begins to question the morality of subjecting Rose to the Dogfight, it is already too late. In the spirit of “Semper fi, do or die!” he trudges on.
The Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s production perfectly captures the whirlwind of passion its young characters experience. The production—directed by Cole V. Edick ’17—fluidly shifts from lighthearted song-and-dance numbers to moving moments of quiet and sadness. Moreover, the actors infuse an occasionally clichéd storyline with life and emotion through effective singing and acting.
Running in the blackbox Loeb Experimental Theater, the show’s set design (Ana P. Marinovic '16) is sparse. “Enlist Today!” propaganda posters and pictures of San Francisco hang on the walls, but the stage is otherwise devoid of fixed set pieces. Instead, the production uses a dynamic set in which the actors pull furniture on and offstage, often as part of choreographed dance numbers. The ever-changing set follows the constant caprices of the show’s characters and allows the musical to maintain a fast pace.
In fact, the action rarely stops in “Dogfight.” It is a testament to the ability of the actors that they manage to keep up with the pace of the show. Actors go through costume changes on stage while singing. They make set changes while dancing. The actors were visibly dripping with sweat at multiple times in the show, but they never missed a beat.
The fast, lighthearted song numbers show off the singing ability of the cast, particularly in the scenes where all of the marines sing together in a sort of boyish abandon. In songs “Some Kinda Time,” and “Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade,” the tenor-heavy group harmonizes beautifully and dances with vigor. In these youthful and energetic numbers, the audience really believes that this is group of naïve boys who do not know what is ahead of them.
The few slow moments in the show are also powerful. The romance between the characters Birdlace and Rose is believable: Speedy and Phillips capture the early awkwardness between their characters, but before long they let their defenses down and work together with powerful chemistry. With a bright and confident voice, Speedy is undoubtedly the star of this show, and yet he does not overpower Phillips in their duets. Phillips, for her part, plays the incredibly vulnerable role of Rose impressively. Singing in a meek yet beautiful croon, she displays all the character’s insecurities without relying on stereotypes.
In the intimacy of the Loeb Ex, the experience of the show becomes even more personal. The cast members stand level with the audience, only a few feet away. In one scene, where Birdlace is in a moment of distress and confusion, Speedy stares directly into the eyes of the audience with discomforting closeness. When he is angry and yells at his fellow marines, we see the spit flying from Speedy’s mouth and the veins bulging in his temples. There is nowhere to hide on the open stage, no room for deception. All that happens is there for the audience to see—raw and human.
“Dogfight” effortlessly blends pomp with poignancy. It avoids traditional musical trappings and treats its weighty subject matter with respect. By the second act, when guns start firing, the audience has grown personally attached to the characters. We want them to turn back, but the young marines do not have an option. Feigning confidence, they let out a “Semper fi, do or die!” and head into the void.
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