‘Dogfight’ a sentimental, authentic charmer

A love story with unorthodox, yet real, characters is a rare thing – and “Dogfight” is one of them.

San Francisco Playhouse began its 13th season (“It’s our bar mitzvah,” artistic director Bill English told Saturday’s opening night audience) with a smashing San Francisco premiere of the intimate, coming-of-age musical based on the 1991 movie starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor.

Thoroughly involving and engaging from start to finish, the musical, directed by English, captures the spirit of the poignant film (screenplay by Bob Comfort) about a young Marine in 1963 on a one-night leave in San Francisco who meets his match when he sets up a girl for the dogfight.

(The unsavory Marine tradition is a competition whose winner brings the ugliest girl to a bar; the girls, of course, participate without knowledge.)

Fans of the movie truly will appreciate how “Dogfight” creators Benji Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) and Peter Duncan (book) enhance the characters’ challenges and vulnerabilities, rather than mask or obliterate them with cheap comedy or overblown production values.

Among contemporary musicals based on movies, “Dogfight,” like “Kinky Boots” and “The Full Monty,” hits high marks. (Less successful transitions include the recent “Amelie” at Berkeley Rep, “Billy Elliot” and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”)

In “Dogfight,” Eddie, the Marine, is a bit dim and full of swagger; Rose, the waitress he picks for the fight, is earnest, thoughtful and overweight.

At first, she’s skeptical when he spots her at the diner on a break, singing with her guitar, and asks her to go to a party with him. After he charmingly persists, she, with longing and a spark of hope, joins him.

The dogfight plays out unexpectedly: Rose and the other women respond with strength; Eddie and his Marine buddies go on to face brutal realities of Vietnam.

English, who designed the effective two-level set (the Golden Gate Bridge, the diner, the bar, a bus and Rose’s bedroom are suggested, complemented by catchy projections of real places – neon signs in The City, the Vietnam battlefield — by David Lee Cuthbert), inspires strong and soulful performances.

Brandon Dahlquist and Andrew Humann bring Eddie’s military pals to life in song and dance, and Amy Lizardo as a prime dogfight contender fills the spotlight, taking the lead in the bold title tune.

First-rate actors and singers Jeffrey Brian Adams and Caitlin Brooke are illuminating as Eddie and Rose, wonderfully human as they grapple with their insecurities and find their way in the rapidly changing world. (The tune “First Date, Last Night” is especially endearing.)

Music director Ben Prince leads the excellent six-piece band (cleverly placed behind a scrim on the upper level) in the pop-tinged score, which has both hum-along and heartbreaking songs.

Where: San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 7
Tickets: $20 to $120
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

Leslie Katz

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