Review: MT’s Dogfight – A strong finale to a successful year

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MT brings us its fourth show of the year, this time in the form of relatively new musical, “Dogfight”, based on the 1991 film of the same name. Set in 1963 in the midst of the Vietnam War, the story follows a group of marines on their final night in San Francisco before being deployed. The men hold a “dogfight”, in which each places $50 into a pot, with whoever succeeds in bringing the ugliest date to the party winning the money, the girls unknowingly rated for their appearance. Protagonist Eddie chooses to take awkward, shy waitress Rose to the party, but their relationship develops beyond the dogfight, and Eddie is forced to question everything he believes.

Staged in the intimate Banham Theatre, the production began with the cast set on stage, throwing the audience immediately into the action as soon as we entered the space. The band was situated backstage, which has proved problematic in the larger shows in the Refectory, but in a small space liked the Banham worked marvellously, because the sound issues were fixed more quickly and easily. The band was generally strong, reliable and together, led by Musical Director and infamous Clarinet extraordinaire Jake Pople. Joe Reeves on keys was particularly notable, playing complicated broken chord and arpeggio patterns perfectly in time – something that could have been a minefield of timing problems. The music of the show itself was unusual – some of the songs lacked the necessary melodic development, but some really lovely crunchy harmonies were utilised, which gave an interesting depth to the score.

The lead roles were played by Sam McCagherty as Eddie and Ellie Macpherson as Rose. Macpherson’s voice was perfectly suited to the role, with a beautifully clear upper register. Despite lacking the power that other cast members had, it worked for her role and she gave a thoroughly endearing performance. McCagherty’s portrayal was particularly effective, and it was refreshing to see him in a role with some substance and depth. It was his first show since MT’s Jekyll and Hyde in 2013 that he was able to play around with a slightly more unusual role. His vulnerability was perfectly portrayed at the beginning of the performance, and he transitioned extremely well throughout the course of the narrative. The duo’s onstage relationship was charming and perfectly believable, complete with a tastefully executed sex scene, something the gratuitous musical theatre scene in Leeds has been lacking for some time now. Their voices, too, blended well although at moments Macpherson’s voice projected stronger and McCagherty needed to bring up his level. The second half of the production was focussed intensely on the pair’s relationship, with minimal chorus involvement. The moments in which the chorus did enter the stage during this section, it did have the tendency to lack intention, with random cast members coming on to sing short sections of music.

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Where the production came slightly unstuck was the lack of cleanliness in its execution. Black boxes were used as furniture, and were moved around by cast members. It created far too much noise, and had the tendency to really break up the action onstage, particularly when it was taking place when a scene or song was going on in front. The scene changes felt frantic, and it may have been more effective for the actors to have changed scenes in character, because it slightly took away from the atmosphere created by the acting. Backstage doors were audibly banging throughout the performance, which was such a shame, because the cast created such palpable moments of tension, which were then lost by perhaps avoidable backstage errors.

The staging of the performance was generally highly effective, and made the most of such a small space. The movement and choreography was impressive, but there were quite a few moments of poor timing, particularly in the boys’ scenes, where they weren’t all in sync and the effect was slightly lost. The boys’ numbers differed vastly in terms of execution, and unfortunately “Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade” which opened the second act left a little to be desired, and lacked the punch it needed, mainly due to some lack of knowledge of the lyrics and moments where the tuning was very flat. However, the boys shone in “Hey Good Lookin’”, one of the most successful numbers of the show, and clearly a favourite of the cast too, because the energy was electric, and as a result it looked far more refined than some of their other numbers.

What really stood out for me though was the casting of the smaller roles; Director Anna Carley could not have got it more spot on. They could have been overshadowed by the two lead roles, but they shone. Emma Hooker was standout, cast perfectly as, well, a hooker. Her duet, “Dogfight”, with Ellie Macpherson stole the show, and her voice could not have been better suited to the role. Her upper range was glorious, and the range of her belt was a real surprise. The only shame came with how fast they moved onto the next scene after this song, not giving the audience time to show their appreciation, which I have no doubt would have been plentiful. Also notable was Zac Cohen, longstanding member of Stage Musicals Society and new member of the MT family. Despite having an American accent that left a little to be desired, Cohen’s acting was some of the most impactful on stage, and he managed to maintain a perfect level of intensity through all his multi-roling. Katherine Reynolds was the other crowd favourite in this production, bringing sublime comic effect to the role of Rose’s mother, and then stunning us all with her dulcet tones later as the Lounge Singer. Her exposure as a soloist was long overdue within the Leeds musical theatre scene, and there is no doubt that she will flourish in bigger roles in the forthcoming year.

Dogfight proved a strong finale to another successful year for the society. What the performance lacked in execution it made up for in energy and an obvious enjoyment of the show, and this cannot be underrated. It is a true reflection on the immense work put in by every cast and crew member to be able to present us with a complex musical like this, done to such a strong standard. It has been a real joy watching and reviewing MT’s productions over the year, and I have no doubt that the next year will be just as successful.

Freya Parr

Images courtesy of RLH Photography

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