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Photograph courtesy of Stray Dog Theatre

Some movies (like Heathers) don’t seem to lend themselves to the musical treatment, while other films seem so ripe for it, it’s only a wonder it took someone so long to do it. Such is the case for Dogfight, a cult classic from 1991 starring River Phoenix (two years before his death) and Lili Taylor.

The story is set in 1967, but primarily takes place in a flashback to 1963 when Corporal Eddie Birdlace and his friends, fresh out of marine boot camp and headed off to Vietnam, decide to have one last raucous night on the town. First up, a dog fight, where the marines each try to win $100 by bringing the ugliest girl to a dance. Eddie, who is running out of time to find a date, happens across Rose, a shy, folk-singing waitress who works at her mother’s café. When Eddie asks her to the dance, Rose is excited about having her first date, but finds out about the contest and has her hopes dashed. Eddie tries to make up with Rose and learns a lesson about love and forgiveness.

“We think it has a very important theme about how to look at people in a new way and see them for what they really are inside,” says Gary Bell, artistic director of Stray Dog, which will stage the St. Louis premiere of Dogfight this month.

The pop/rock musical was written by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek (James and the Giant Peach, Edges, and A Christmas Story: The Musical) and closely follows the original film. When it premiered Off-Broadway in 2012, it received generally favorable reviews.

Huffington Post wrote, “The tunes that the songwriters have penned … not only bring to mind the anthems of the era, but they also zing with the sounds of contemporary musical theater.” The New York Daily News said the musical “sings,” and Entertainment Weekly called the songs “arresting.”

Unfortunately, the movie and musical are also about cruelty. There’s the dogfight itself and then Eddie’s friends, whose night is interspersed with Eddie’s and Rose’s love story. They visit a brothel, get into fights, and generally act like jerks. And the language from the foul-mouthed jarheads is so blue, Stray Dog Theatre warns the show is for mature audiences only.

But staging off-beat or controversial subject matter is what Stray Dog excels at. This season, they’re also staging Hedwig and the Angry Inch (March/April 2016), a musical about a German diva who underwent a botched sex change operation.

“We don’t want to shy away from things that are uncomfortable,” says Bell. “We want things that can stimulate and provoke thought and some self-examination.” And Dogfight, which raises questions about toughness and innocence and how cruelty can co-exist with both, does just that.

Dogfight runs October 8 through October 24, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Performances take place at Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee. Tickets are $25 for adults, and $20 for students and seniors. For more info, call 314-865-1995 or go to straydogtheatre.org.

St. Louis Magazine

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