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THEATER REVIEW: "Dogfight"

News flash: Theater is not dying, contrary to Oscar Hammerstein II’s claim in his 1953 flop “Me and Juliet.”

Even better: There are great recent musicals out there like Peter Duchan, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s 2012 “Dogfight.”

Best of all: “Dogfight” doesn’t fit conveniently into categories, but rather surprises at every turn. The time bounces between Nov. 21, 1963 – the day before protagonist Eddie Birdlace (Patrick Osteen) and his Marine buddies leave for their tour of duty in Vietnam – and 1967, when Birdlace returns to San Francisco.

And what does a marine do on his last day at liberty? You guessed it, but this group of jarheads adds a disquieting twist: they have what they regard as a little fun by renting a bar. Then each tosses $50 into the pot and invites the ugliest girl he can find to “a party,” where without their knowledge the girls will be judged. The marine whose date is named ugliest by the Lounge Singer (Bryan Charles Feldman) wins the pot.

The biggest supporter of the dogfight is Boland (Alex Hoeffler), also the crudest of the “Three Bees” (buddies Boland, Birdlace and Bernstein). Birdlace goes along; Bernstein (Scott Nickley) is a nerdy little guy most interested in losing his virginity before shipping out.

PFC Birdlace (brilliantly played by Patrick Osteen) finds waitress Rose (Caitie Grady) sitting at a table in her mother’s diner, quietly playing a guitar. He strikes up a conversation, finally asking her to “Come to a Party,” without mentioning the point. This “party” will be Rose’s first date.

They live in different worlds with little commonality of either experience or communication style. Birdlace, basically a good guy, has internalized the Marine indoctrination about fixing problems with violence: “If you wanna change the world, Rose, you join the Marines and start shooting. Shooting changes things pretty quick.”

Peacenik Rose counters: “But you shoot at people and, what, you got people shooting back. I don’t see how that’s helping anything.”

They will spend much of the evening either misreading motives, talking past each other or simply misunderstanding. Yet a delicate bond is forming, and Osteen and Grady are expert at portraying the hopes, fears and hesitations that go along with it. (And this quiet girl has a few surprises in store for Mr. Know-It-All.)

Meanwhile, Boland has found Marcy, a talky, streetwise hooker who knows not only the ropes but the rules of the contest, and guarantees to win it. Sarah Errington milks this role for all its considerable scene-stealing potential.

Bernstein picks up stolid Native American Ruth Two Bears (Mel Domingo), a stark contrast and the closest thing to a stock character in the cast.

The music is another wonderful surprise. No rock-’em-sock-’em Broadway numbers here; rather, the upbeat songs and lyrics by Benj Paske and Justin Paul sound like something testosterone-fueled Marines might be thinking; the contemplative and poignant numbers reflect emotion so that singing becomes an extension of thought or dialogue. Some of the numbers are almost operatic, especially duets like Rose and Eddie’s “First Date/Last Night.”

Hoeffler’s Boland mirrors the brashness and can-do attitude of his buddy Birdlace. Nickley’s Bernstein reflects the optimism and hopefulness of the early incursion into Vietnam and its purported purpose of saving Vietnam from Communism.

Sean Murray directs this unusual show deftly, and has a assembled a crack team to help. David Brannen’s choreography is largely muscular and seems appropriate for the situation and characters. Sean Fanning’s multilevel set design serves the show well, as do Chris Rynne’s lighting, David Scott’s sound design, Jacinda Johnston-Fischer’s costumes and Patrick Osteen’s fight choreography.

There’s nothing this theater critic likes better than finding a great new musical. And when it’s so good you want to shout it from the rooftops, well, let me just put it this way: Don’t miss “Dogfight.”

The details

“Dogfight” plays through August 23, 2015 at Cygnet Theatre, Twiggs St., Old Town.

Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm

Tickets: (619) 337-1525 or cygnettheatre.com

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.