Through Sunday, July 30
North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre, Raleigh

Because local companies regularly present regional and state premieres, we see a refreshing collection of new plays in the Triangle each season. But that’s never been the case with musicals, which is understandable. They’re exponentially more expensive to stage and larger companies have a vested interest in minimizing risk. When touring productions stick to proven Broadway hits and local producers don’t spend much time off Broadway, we get big-ticket shows like Spamalot and The King & I instead of overlooked gems like The Fortress of Solitude or Here Lies Love.

So it’s important when companies like North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre go out on a limb for the regional premiere of a work like Dogfight, an award-winning off-Broadway musical from 2012. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s music and lyrics have the bittersweet deftness and lilt of Sondheim in places. After the cruel initial twists of their first evening together, awkward Eddie Birdlace (a convincing Matt Verner) and crestfallen Rose (Rebekah Holland) eventually find an unexpected, rueful rapprochement in a late-night restaurant in San Francisco: “So take her out/ Give him a shot/ ‘Cause people can surprise you/ Or not.”

That development, however, follows one of the darkest first dates in theatrical history. It’s 1963, and Eddie and his fellow U.S. Marines, just out of basic training, are about to be deployed to a then-obscure country, Vietnam. The play takes its title from the competition they hold on their last night of liberty: the marine who brings the ugliest date to the party wins the pot they’ve all put money in. After Eddie invites Rose, he tries to suggest they do something else, but their miscommunication puts her in the room as the humiliating pageant takes place.

Pasek and Paul convey the biting irony of the future awaiting the naive recruits. In one song, they expect to serve a year and then return to a hometown hero’s welcome: “You win a war/ You pick a wife/ You get respect/ Your whole damn life.” But time, honor, and geopolitics will test the bonds of Birdlace and his two buddies, Bernstein (a wild-eyed Andrew Faggion) and trickster figure Boland (a steely Christopher Maxwell).

But this production achieves only limited success. Under Joanna Li’s superior musical direction, the leads and ensemble crisply, confidently explore the show’s complex melodies and harmonies; it’s the best vocal work I’ve heard at NRACT. But the company urgently needs professional set designs for its threadbare stage. Director Tim Locklear ably gets to the hearts of these characters, but when blocking this musical, his actors tend to stop, stare in one direction, and sing. Renditions that seem almost inert or blinkered are decidedly at odds with the expressive feelings coming from his leads.

We’re glad that NRACT champions new works, and heartened that it has upgraded its musical skills. Now, other production values need to follow.