Musical review: Dogfight, Chapel Off Chapel

What does a contemporary stage adaptation of this 90s movie about misogyny and sexual politics look like?

Dogfight the musical offers a curt reminder of the misogyny and cruelty beneath the swinging ‘60s and flower power era of the ‘70s. As with Nancy Savoca’s 1991 film and the 2012 Off-Broadway production that inspired it, compassion and empathy is its enduring core, along with added themes of idealism, the purity of camaraderie and connection.

With music and lyrics by Benji and Justin Paul (A Christmas Story, James and the Giant Peach) and direction from Pip Mushin (Midnight, Book of Mormon), and following rave reviews in the 2012 version, this production possesses all the essential ingredients for a fun show.

Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see this script revived and performed faithfully, considering its crudeness and mistreatment of women (it barely passes the Bechdel test) and introduction of a transgender character who appears briefly. Fortunately, the play’s intention is evident from its guides and supporting materials: to confront and counter the misogynistic aspects of its premise. Uncomfortable scenes, like Bernstein’s (Tristan Sicari) confrontation with a sex worker, are therefore presented with a blend of discomfort and irony; such scenes, challenging to accept even in 2012, seem even more unsettling in 2023. 

The play commences on a bus, where a group of marines introduces the concept of the “dogfight” – an awful tradition where each marine must bring the least attractive date to a party in exchange for a cash prize. The stage design is lacklustre but resourceful, with beds rolling out from beneath the stage and hanging posters, including the iconic “I Want You” recruitment poster. 

Corporal Eddie Birdlace (played by Daniel Nieborski) meets Rose (Antoniette David), a sweet and slightly awkward waitress, whom he persuades into attending the “dogfight” party with him and his fellow recruits. Among the discomfort of the party (swaying women and boisterous behaviour from the marines), it’s actually Rose that wears Eddie down, evoking a smidge of guilt and softening his militant façade. Ryan Etlis shines on stage as the night’s entertainment, and it is fun to watch the dynamics of the dancing couples. Foreshadowing in the dehumanisation of the female partygoers and the faceless soldiers they will later encounter in Vietnam adds a poignant touch.

The second act peaks with an endearing dinner date scene and a stroll beneath the twinkling theatre lights, before moving into a protracted bedroom scene that lacks a bit of the silliness and sincerity of the original film. The play rushes towards its conclusion with a stylish transition to Eddie’s deployment to Vietnam, where he and his comrades confront the harsh realities of war. It’s a sombre ending, but in this “dogfight”, it’s clearly not the men who win. 

The Australian actors’ accents occasionally strain the authenticity of American characters. Still, the cast aptly captures the essence of the original film’s characters (kudos for the head shaving) and Antoinette David delivers an exceptionally vulnerable vocal performance. Daniel Nieborski charms as Eddie, especially in the second act, as he grapples with being sincere while maintaining his masculine military bravado.

Supporting characters like Marcy/Peggy (Madeline Pratt) inject energy and breadth to the stage, bolstered by consistent blocking. The costuming, especially the ’70s fashion, feels a touch tacky when contrasted with the sharp military outfits of the soldiers, complete with glinting dog tags. Additionally, minor hiccups such as lighting malfunctions and microphone issues briefly disrupted the performance, but these are par for the course on opening night.

Read: Theatre review: IRL, Roundhouse Theatre, Brisbane

To truly appreciate this show, you must be ready to confront its deliberate exploration of toxic masculinity and unearth the nuances of the text. If you have an affinity for musicals, folk music and a dash of cringe-worthy romance, this production may be worth your while.

Chapel Off Chapel

Director: Pip Mushin 
Musical Director: Timothy John Wilson 
Choreographer and Assistant Director: Adriana Pannuzzo
Production Coordinator: Burnie Dariol
Production Assistant: Millie Shanks
Executive Producer: Andrew Gyopar
Book: Peter Duchan
Music and lyrics: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

Cast: Daniel Nieborski, Tristan Sicari, Madeline Pratt, Amir Yacoub, Cindy Yan, Amber Sindoni, Antoinette Davis, Josh Direen, Kael Serin-D’Alterio, John Ninis, Olivia Linas, Ryan Etlis, Jessica Robinson

Dogfight will be performed until 26 November 2023.

Nina Culley is a writer and horror enthusiast based in Naarm. She’s the Studio Manager and Director of Melbourne Young Writers' Studio where she also teaches creative writing. Her works have appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Aniko Press and Eureka Street.