Sarah Ah Sing in "Dogfight" at Coronado Playhouse. Photo by Ken Jacques
Dogfight is one of the great underrated musicals of the 2000s. Adapted from a 1991 film into a 2012 stage musical by Peter Duchan with a score and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (who would later collaborate on the Tony-winning Dear Evan Hansen), Dogfight is a bracing, immersive show that thoughtfully poses questions about beauty, machismo and war.
Cygnet Theatre’s production of Dogfight was among the San Diego theatrical highlights of 2015. But as a current staging by the Coronado Playhouse community theater attests, the emotional complexion of this musical, when well-executed, transcends production budget. What Coronado’s Dogfight may lack in resources and cast experience, it makes up for with perceptive direction by Teri Brown, kinetic choreography by Patrick Mayuyu and a versatile six-member band capable of balancing the score’s dramatic highs and lows. Most of all it beguiles and devastates on the performance of Sara Ah Sing, a junior at Point Loma Nazarene University, who demonstrates bravery and intuition beyond her years as the heartbreaking Rose Fenny,
It’s Rose, a dowdy waitress in a San Francisco diner, who is unwittingly recruited by a cocky young Marine named Eddie (Adam Sussman) to be his date on the last night before he ships out for the Vietnam War by way of Okinawa in 1963. The “dogfight” is a crass competition among the hell-raising Marines to bring to a party the ugliest dance partner, the winner getting a $500 prize. From this cruel ritual evolves in a single night an uneasy but genuine love story between Rose and Eddie. When the night ends, the brutality of the war imparts the true meaning of ugliness.
Ah Sing’s vocals, as during the sentient ballads “Pretty Funny” and “Give Way,” are fervent and tender, as is her painful aloneness after she learns the awful trick played on her. The vocal shortcomings of some of the other cast members are evident, however, and the acoustics in the Coronado Community Playhouse are inconstant, particularly when the actors are moving up and down the split-level set.
There’s no loss of urgency, however, in a production that this longtime community theater (73 seasons and counting) can be proud of. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/31/19.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat