Performances make Dogfight musical sing

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Rose (Caitlin Brooke) and Eddie (Jeffrey Brian Adams) attend a suspicious party in the musical Dogfight at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Marines (from left, Nikita Burshteyn, Adams, Brandon Dahlquist, Andrew Humann, Aejay Mitchell and Andy Rotchadl) celebrate their leave atop the Golden Gate Bridge. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

There are two very good reasons to see the musical Dogfight at San Francisco Playhouse. The 2012 stage adaptation of the 1991 movie starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor has its moments (mostly thanks to the emotional score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), but what really makes it connect are the lead performances by Jeffrey Brian Adams as a U.S. Marine with more depth under his gruff military exterior than even he may realize and Caitlin Brooke as a San Francisco waitress/folk singer who is smarter, stronger and more compassionate than anyone the Marine has ever known (or probably ever will know).

The premise of the show is a harsh one. A band of Marines lands in San Francisco the night before they ship out to Asia and, we can surmise, to the Vietnam conflict. It’s Nov. 21, 1963. No one knows President Kennedy will be assassinated the next day in Dallas, and on this night, the Marines engage in the age-old tradition of a “dogfight.” The Marine who parades the ugliest date across the dance floor at a dive bar wins the pot.<.p>

Private Eddie Birdlace (Adams) is especially gung-ho about the night’s event, as are his two buddies, whose names also start with B: Boland (Brandon Dahlquist) and Bernstein (Andrew Humann). The “three Bs” scour the streets of San Francisco for potentially prize-winning dogs (and also they wouldn’t mind getting laid), and Eddie wanders into a diner, where he hears Rose (Brooke) strumming a guitar and working on a song. There’s not really any universe in which Brooke could possibly be considered a “dog,” but costumer Tatjana Genser does her best to render the actor unattractive, especially in a yellow party dress she wears to accompany Eddie, after much persuasion, to the bar where she will unwittingly become a contestant in a hateful contest.

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The songs in Act 1 include a rousing Marines on the town number, “Some Kinda Time,” which features the hyper-masculine choreography of Keith Pinto, a sleazy “let’s bag the dogs” number (“Hey Good Lookin'”) and a terrific ballad for Rose, “Nothing Short of Wonderful.” The one musical misstep here is the title song, sung by Rose and the winner of the dogfight, Marcy (Amy Lizardo). The song is strident and hard on the ears, which is the exact opposite of the rest of the score, which lives in the emotional strata where pop meets show tune – territory that feels reminiscent of Jason Robert Brown and Duncan Sheik.

One of the big challenges for book writer Peter Duchan is to make us care about Marines behaving badly. Sure, they’re shipping off to serve their country, but they are, in essence, assholes. We get to know Eddie best of all, and while he’s never quite likable, we at least begin to understand him, and the fact that he finally recognizes Rose for the wonderful person she is, definitely works in his favor. Eddie’s pals, on the other hand, are just crass stereotypes of soldiers gone wild, attempting to whore it up and ending up (secretly) in tears but still retaining bragging rights to protect the fragile (and enormous) male ego.

Act 2 has a harder time resolving the Eddie-Rose love story, shipping Eddie and friends off to the war and then flashing forward four years to 1967 when returning soldiers were spat on by hippies in the streets of San Francisco. The attempt to frame the story in a larger context ends up diminishing the central love story and providing a pat ending that feels tacked on rather than emotionally earned.

Director Bill English, who also designed the multi-level set dominated by a leaning tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, guides a strong cast through the two-plus-hour show, and musical director Ben Prince and his six-piece band help find all the emotion in the (mostly) rich Pasek-Paul score.

Dogfight isn’t a perfect musical, but its central love story, especially as brought to life by Adams and Brooke, who couldn’t be more emotionally grounded and powerful, has us sitting up and begging for more.

Dogfight continues through Nov. 7 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Music makes good Company at SF Playhouse

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Robert (Keith Pinto, center) suffers his friends and their attempts to fix him up Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1970 musical Company now at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Amy (Monique Hafen) continues to have second thoughts as her fiancé Paul (John Paul Gonzalez) stands by. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

The summer musical Company at San Francisco Playhouse is good, not great, and that’s only disappointing because the show itself, with a score by Stephen Sondheim and a book by George Furth is absolutely great. An unusual musical, Company is constructed like a play made up of short, not necessarily connected scenes about marriage that are interrupted by songs, also about the pain (and some joy) of connubial “bliss.” It all comes together brilliantly and ends up feeling like a cohesive show. It was a revelation in 1970 and remains a high point of contemporary musical theater.

The really stellar part of this production, directed by Susi Damilano, is hearing the score played on twin pianos. Music director Dave Dobrusky is stage right and another pianist (Eryn Allen, Ben Prince and Michael Anthony Schuler are the rotating players) is stage left on the multilevel set (by Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott abetted by the giant Manhattan projections by Micha Stieglitz). The sound of the original 1970 production is so distinctive (those electric guitars!) from the original cast album that it’s often strange to hear the score played in other ways, but Dobrusky, using orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, delivers a full, exciting sound that allows you to hear the score with fresh ears.

There’s unevenness in Damilano’s 14-member cast, but key elements are strong.

Keith Pinto is at the center of the marital maelstrom as Bobby, a perpetual bachelor whose married friends are celebrating his 35th birthday. Bobby Bubbi Robert Darling Bobby Baby (as his friends call him) is a tricky character. He’s a cad, a charmer and a cypher. He’s built up all kinds of defenses to keep the world at arm’s length, and his interaction with women tends to be on a wham, bam, temporary ma’am basis. He’s an inveterate third wheel in the world of his married pals – there are five couples who comprise his immediate circle – and for the couples, single Bobby serves as a sort of witness to their discord. Pinto plays Bobby’s warmth and his flaws expertly, and though Bobby as a character doesn’t come fully into his own until the end of the show (there’s never been a better epiphany song than “Being Alive”), Pinto shines in his solos leading up to the breakthrough, “Someone Is Waiting” and “Marry Me a Little.”

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There’s been all kinds of talk through the years that the real story of Company is that Bobby is gay and hasn’t figured it out yet. That’s certainly interesting, and any production of the show that doesn’t set it in 1970 has to wrestle with that and the fact that there’s zero discussion of same-sex marriage. Damilano’s production is set now (Bobby has a smart phone), and a story he tells about getting lost on the way back to a hotel hook-up seems like it could easily have been solved by Google Maps. The show doesn’t feel dated exactly because the themes are universal and the writing is so incisive, but it definitely feels out of time.

In this production, Bobby is resolutely straight, and his married friends are all heteronormative (to use a trendy word). The most interesting among them is also the most neurotic: Amy, nicely played by Monique Hafen, basically has a nervous breakdown in her tongue-twisting solo “Getting Married Today” and then has to deal with the consequences. Another of Bobby’s friends, Joanne, never met a cocktail she couldn’t seduce, and as played by Stephanie Prentice, she’s brittle and damaged. Prentice’s “The Ladies Who Lunch” is a powerhouse, and in the context of her scene – she’s just gone on a rant and then shifts into vixen mode – it’s a beautifully calibrated performance.

Morgan Dayley is sweet, funny and dippy as April, a flight attendant who dallies with Bobby, and their scene is another highlight leading into a darkly funny “Barcelona.” A standout song in a score that’s full of them is “Sorry-Grateful,” one of the best songs ever written about marriage, is affectingly performed by a trio of husbands: Christopher Reber, Ryan Drummond and Richard Frederick.

The big dance number, “Side by Side by Side/What Would We Do Without You?,” has some spark to it, but the choreography by Kimberly Richards feels disconnected from the characters and their relationships. For instance, after the cast has been twirling canes in a vaudevillian way, they discard the canes by dumping them in Bobby’s arms. That’s a great image that seems like it’s going somewhere, but then it doesn’t. And she has Bobby prancing around the stage like the Emcee in Cabaret and that feels remarkably out of sync with the character.

Thankfully this is not a dance show. Director Damilano exerts a strong influence over the book scenes, and most of them have real edge. The issues and emotions of those scenes is then magnified by the music, which remains this production’s strong suit from the moment the phone rings, door chimes and in comes company right through to the moment Bobby realizes alone is alone, not alive.

Company continues through Sept. 12 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Review: `Angry Black White Boy’


Keith Pinto (left) and Dan Wolf star in Wolf’s adaptation of the Adam Mansbach novel Angry Black White Boy at San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts. The dynamic production features live music, rap, dance and old-fashioned storytelling. Photos by Evan Loewy


Music, beats, movement make `Angry’ a joy

For all of its form crunching and boundary pushing, Angry Black White Boy rises or falls on the strength of its storytelling.

For most of its two hours, Dan Wolf’s stage adaptation of Adam Mansbach’s novel tells a fierce, funny, fascinating story that cuts to the core of what we talk about when we talk about race in this country.

There’s satire and sincerity in ample supply, and this dynamic Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts production, directed with sharp focus and experimental glee by Sean San José, is compelling as it is entertaining.

Mansbach’s narrative, which lacks only a satisfying ending, is augmented by fluid sound and movement that make the story feel like dance, poetry and music without ever detracting from the forward motion of the plot and the characters’ trajectory.

“The question is not how I got here but how you all didn’t,” says Macon Detornay (played by Wolf), a white Jewish kid from the Boston suburbs who has fully immersed himself, body and soul, in the world of hip-hop. He’s so outraged by the tacit level of racism in the U.S. that he begins to act out. A Columbia University student, Macon supports himself by driving a cab. And when a “typical white devil asshole” gets into the back of the taxi, Macon robs the man of his wallet and his dignity.

The vigilante robberies continue because all the victims report that the offending driver was black. After the inevitable arrest (when Macon insists that his latest victim note the actual color of his white skin), Macon becomes something of a folk hero and media darling/punching bag as he denounces white people’s institutional, economic and social privilege through something he calls the Race Traitor Project.

Like so many rise to fame stories, once the protagonist hits the peak of celebrity, things get less interesting. Aside from some excellent re-creations of talk show appearances, Macon’s story sort of implodes rather than explodes.

But the storytelling along the way crackles with energy that comes from the fusion of mostly live music (performed by Tommy Shepherd, Keith Pinto and Myers Clark, all of whom are also actors) – a blend of hip-hop, rap, beatbox, doo-wop, gorgeous harmonies — and incisive movement devised by Pinto, who is a joy to watch glide around the small Intersection for the Arts stage.

The story also takes some surprising turns. Part of Macon’s rage against white people stems from his heritage, namely his great grandfather, Cap Anson, the guy largely responsible for getting African-Americans banned from major league baseball. As a sort of attempt to make amends, Macon befriends the great-grandson of a black ball player who was one of the last to leave the league.

This historical detour – the baseball stuff is true – gives the enormously likable Shepherd the chance to play Moses “Fleet” Walker, the player who held on to his dignity to the very end, and to create a rich musical riff inspired by Fleet to the effect of “you can’t keep running away.”

There’s also a very funny late-night encounter with he People’s Cooperative Guerilla Theatre, who stage an impromptu version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with a startled Macon “starring” as Nora, and an astute scene set in the classroom of a distinguished “academic gangsta” professor who happily apologizes for anything untoward in hip-hop.

As Macon’s friends Nique and Andre, Shepherd and Clark, respectively, offer sharply drawn performances full of humor and grounded realism. And as all of Macon’s victims, as well as a series of talk show hosts, Pinto is equally as effective but in a more stylized comic way.

The excellent quartet of actors fuses sound, movement and storytelling to create a uniquely theatrical experience. This is a true ensemble endeavor, and that’s the ultimate joy of Angry Black White Boy.

Angry Black White Boy continues through Nov. 30 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$25 on a sliding scale. Call 415-626-3311 or visit