Ardmore native Benj Pasek and his songwriting partner Justin Paul struck it big on Broadway with Dear Evan Hansen, then won Oscars for La La Land. And before their spate of success, they crafted the compelling chamber musical Dogfight, which is now enjoying a tender staging (through Dec. 8) at the Eagle Theatre in Hammonton, N.J.
Based on Nancy Savoca’s 1991 movie of the same name — notable as one of River Phoenix’s final film appearances — the production follows a group of Marines set to ship out for the still-nascent conflict in Vietnam.
It’s 1963 in San Francisco, and the boys have one goal for their last night on shore: Find an unattractive young woman to bring to the “dogfight,” where the jarhead with the ugliest date wins a cash prize.
Cpl. Eddie Birdlace (Sal Pavia) meets his mark in Rose Fenny (Anabelle Szepietowski), a sensitive and sheltered diner waitress who dreams of stardom as a folksinger. Unsurprisingly, his conscience complicates matters.
The musical’s sweet charm mostly comes from the budding affection between Eddie and Rose — she pierces his protective armor of toxic masculinity, and he pushes her out of her shy shell. On screen, Phoenix and Lili Taylor generated a sense of real chemistry and discovery in these roles.
The Eagle has a fine pair in Pavia and Szepietowski. Her appealing sound suits both folk pastiche and the more traditionally musical-theater numbers in the score. She performs “Pretty Funny,” the first-act closer that communicates Rose’s anguish over Eddie’s betrayal, to devastating effect.
Pavia doesn’t possess a blue-chip instrument like Derek Klena, who originated the role of Eddie in the musical’s New York premiere. But he nicely shows the gradual erosion of the character’s braggadocious mask, revealing the kind and thoughtful soul beneath.
Under Ed Corsi’s gentle direction, he and Szepietowski make the whirlwind romance seem genuine and endearing.
Talent abounds in the supporting cast. Rebecca Krainik flaunts a rafter-shaking voice as Marcy, a prostitute paid to throw the dogfight. She brings a welcome dose of astringent edge to the material, which sometimes lacks the gritty flavor of the source film.
Joe Canuso and Brian Keith Graziani are spot-on as Eddie’s buddies in the corps — a swaggering meathead and a nerdy virgin, respectively. Sean C. White stands out as the resident lounge lizard.
Don Swenson’s set warmly evokes a San Francisco of yore. The production’s technical elements are uniformly strong, particularly for a theater of this size, and Jason Neri nicely conducts a six-piece band situated behind the stage.
It’s a shame that the performers are mercilessly overamplified. In a space that seats fewer than 200 people, there is no need to crank the volume to rock-concert levels. (Or, really, to employ much amplification at all.)
When there is a voice as lovely as Szepietowski’s at the center, I guarantee the audience will lean in and listen close.
Through Dec. 8 at Eagle Theatre, 208 Vine St., Hammonton, N.J.
Information: 609-704-5012 or eagletheatre.org.