UNO's 'Dogfight,' about macho Marines and a cruel bet, takes time to warm up to

From left, Jared Cernousek, Delaney Jackson, Abby Cameron and Isaac Glover perform in "Dogfight" at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

"Dogfight," the season-opening show for the University of Nebraska at Omaha theatre department, is the antithesis of a happy, fluffy musical.

Written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and produced off Broadway in 2012, it's the story of Marines who have one final night of carousing in San Francisco before they're shipped off to Okinawa and then Vietnam. The night is Nov. 21, 1963, the day before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and several decades before any of the performers were born. It sounds pretty heavy, and it is. No raindrops on roses here.

Even though it's about a bygone era, it offers a lot to young actors:

The sometimes catchy but mostly unmemorable music is used throughout to propel the plot, rather than just pausing the action for a pretty song — a departure from more traditional musicals.

It's written in a quick, frequently staccato and undeniably modern style, making it fun for young actors to sing.

The script is raw, real and profane, with some multi-dimensional characters. The number of obscenities likely will shock some audience members (the liberal use of a curse that many find blasphemous is especially jarring). After a while, the language started to wear on me, but I couldn't deny its authenticity.

It moves fast and gives students a versatile experience: Everyone sings and dances, and many also have lines, both comical and serious. It's a great addition to a résumé.

It offers a compelling story to theatergoers as well:

In the show, a dogfight is a bet: Each Marine invites a girl to a party, and the one with the ugliest date wins. The lead-up to the party, and the event itself, takes up a fair amount of time. The cruelty of the bet made it hard to like the first act, though it featured several engaging ensemble numbers and a terrific performance by Delaney Jackson as Marcy, a prostitute who wins the wager for her date, Boland (Jarod Cernousek, who does a good job with a pretty unlikable character). That bet made me squirm, which, no doubt, was the intent of the writers.

It redeems itself in act two, as the main characters seem to mature over the course of one important evening. In the beginning, Eddie Birdlace (Isaac Glover) is a stereotypical Marine, macho and chauvinistic. Rose Fenny (Abby Coleman) is a naive and idealistic waitress who wants to be a folk singer. When Eddie takes her to the party, it's her first date. Glover and Coleman do a good job giving Isaac more heart and Rose more strength and courage as the show progresses. I found a lot to like in their transformation, and by the end, I was heartened and moved.

Other takeaways:

The set, designed by theater department chairman Steven L. Williams, is plain yet versatile, with nothing more than scaffolding that resembles a bridge, movable steps and two sliding garage-like doors underneath the stage that facilitated set changes to a diner, a restaurant and a bedroom. The changes were a little chaotic at times, but overall, it worked.

Junior Chris Sheridan's projections above the set make everything more real. When Marines are on a bus, for example, they're sitting on the movable steps and a photo of a bus interior is shown on the wall. The steps also are used as a trolley for Eddie and Rose, with another cast member rolling them around the stage and a real trolley projected behind. It's innovative, charming and surprisingly believable. Other projections include the Golden Gate Bridge, Marine recruiting posters, war protests and more.

Colorful costumes by faculty member Valerie St. Pierre Smith are fun, kitschy and extremely relevant.

The vocal work is fine, especially when everyone is singing together, but interestingly enough, there weren't any standout vocalists. I think that's partly because the music doesn't lend itself to soaring solos such as those in other musicals. Much of it is choppy and not particularly melodic. It doesn't hold up well in comparison to other scores, both modern and classic.

The verdict: Faculty member D. Scott Glasser and adjunct instructor Moira Mangiameli (the show's co-directors) have helped their students create a worthwhile evening of theater about a difficult time in U.S. history. It also offers audiences fodder for post-show conversation. Not bad for the first show of the school year.

DOGFIGHT

What: Stage musical

Where: University of Nebraska at Omaha Department of Theatre, Weber Fine Arts Building, 6505 University Drive South

When: 2 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Oct. 27

Tickets: $20 general admission; UNO students free with MavCARD

Information: bit.ly/2n35Wy0 or 402-554-7529

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