A military dogfight typically is a dizzying aerial battle of wits – the kind of contest that wins battles and wars. But this slight US musical adds a second definition. It’s set among Vietnam era marines who haven’t seen real combat yet, so get their kicks from an utterly witless contest to see who can pick up, then humiliate, the local girl they deem least worthy of that dubious honour.
It’s an unsavoury premise, not least for a musical that shies away from the realities of the conflict in Vietnam in favour of a rather frothy romance between 20 year old marine Eddie and the “dog” he picks up, Rose. Seemingly born and bred in a diner ready for this moment, she’s never been to a party before and has no idea that she’s being taken to this one solely because, at a mere two dress sizes above musical theatre industry standard, she’s a surefire candidate to win Eddie a cash prize in the marines’ unbeautiful parade.
Eddie and his pals are completely ignorant of the social changes going on in the world outside. Whereas Rose idolises Bob Dylan, the only protest song they know is “We all want to come.” And where she worries about the escalating conflict in Vietnam, they think the war is a morally justifiable jolly that will get them home as heroes in no time. There’s some pathos in their certainty that their sixteen weeks of training has prepared them for whatever they might face. But Peter Duchan’s book lacks enough of a social conscience of its one to consistently comment on or satirise theirs. Rose’s relentless niceness is as feeble as a flower in a gun barrel when faced with the marine’s constant barrage of misogynist slurs directed at the “dogs” they hunt down. Still worse, the other women at the dogfight are largely mute, which is especially problematic in the case of the utterly misjudged native American stereotype Ruth Twobears – here, the tactless production design puts her in two plaits, fake tan and a pencilled on monobrow and moustache.
The irony of this musical is that it mixed Duchan’s lewd and crude book with a score of subtle delicacy. It might be as ignorant of the sixties sound as Eddie is, but Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s gentle acoustic guitar and ingeniously arranged acapella sound has a swinging momentum of its own. Still, both leads lack the vocal power to sell their simple love duets, meaning that Rebecca Trehearn’s charismatic turn as a straight-talking hooker Marcy tramples all over these wet blankets.
There’s a similarly damp-spirited attempt at a feminist resolution in the second act. But by this time we’ve seen the marines judge women like cattle, threaten Marcy out of her share of her prize, and threaten a prostitute into sleeping with them. It’s clear that they’re all basically peripheral to the story – their only purpose is to demonstrate Eddie’s own personal development from bright-eyed young misogynist to battle-scarred family man.
This UK première comes complete with West End style production values – choreographer Lucie Pankhurst creates a visual fizz of adolescent exuberance, underneath designer Lee Newby’s vast metal arch of a set. But its rather less polished narrative arc means that, like fellow Southwark productions of American transplants Pippin and Parade, it’s unlikely to become a permanent fixture on the London scene.