An ugly concept that's beautifully realised
Laura Jane Matthewson in Dogfight
DogfightSouthwark Playhouse, London SE1
The title does not refer to a Top Gun battle in the sky, nor a snarling pit of canines. Rather, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's musical, first seen in New York in 2012, is about a cruel competition conducted by a squad of American marines to date the ugliest girl. It's a love story.
Peter Duchan's book - based on the 1991 River Phoenix movie - structures the show as a memory musical mostly set in 1963 San Francisco, just before the soldiers' first tour of duty in Vietnam. Lee Newby's design of the Golden Gate Bridge dominates, but I couldn't help thinking that he would have done better to focus on an engineering detail rather than the whole thing. Those huge nuts and bolts that bridges are built with would have said a lot more about scale than this stunted version of the icon.
Pasek and Paul's pretty and often beautiful score belies the nastiness of the story's conceit. In some ways it is the antidote. The kind of eardrum-splitting anthems that imitators and originators of West End hits often churn out would have given the audience no emotional refuge for the humiliation of sweet diner waitress Rose (Laura Jane Matthewson), who is the prey of meat-headed marine Eddie Birdlace (a terrific Jamie Muscato).
Some of the most impressive singing on a London stage
But Pasek and Paul are several cuts above that lot. There is, it's true, the occasional song here that (almost inevitably for a show with melodic and lyrical ambition) sounds as though written by huge fans of Sondheim. In other moments, I thought I could hear strains of the Sheik and Sater musical version of Spring Awakening, which is still probably the best new musical score of this century (where is their next show?).
Still, as Picasso said, bad artists copy, good artists steal and in its best moments Dogfight achieves an ecstasy that leaves no doubt that Pasek and Paul are very good. The title song, typical of the music's inventiveness, is a quite wonderful duet of power singing and finesse delivered by Matthewson in her professional debut and Rebecca Trehearn as the hooker hired by another marine to win the ugly competition.
The six-piece band, perched higher than one of the bridge's suspension cables, is a beautifully balanced group. Under George Dyer's musical direction, it kicks hard when rock 'n' roll numbers demand it but has the heart of a string quartet. And Matt Ryan's production expertly steers the show through scenes of male bravado and tender courtship.
But, apart from music deserving all the recognition it received in New York a couple of years ago, the overriding virtue of this show's UK debut is that it boasts some of the most impressive singing to be found on any London stage, including the current slew of West End musicals. Better still, it has a cast populated by relative or complete unknowns, proving that the talent pool for performers in musicals here is deep, deeper than it is for composers.