The best musical in New York isn’t on Broadway; it’s off-Broadway at the venerable Second Stage Theatre, the same company that helped develop Next to Normal. While Dogfight might not be as revelatory as that Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning masterpiece, it is very, very good. 

As in the obscure early 90s movie of the same name, Dogfight tells the story of three Marines on the night before they ship out for Vietnam. The world is a different place; it’s November 21, 1963, the day before President Kennedy was shot, and these Jarheads are looking for a little fun. They decide to have a dogfight, but it’s not the kind that got Michael Vick into trouble. In Marine parlance, a dogfight is a battle to see which Marine can score the ugliest date. In his search for a dog to bring to the fight, the leader of the pack Eddie Birdlace (Derek Klena) meets Rose Fenny (Lindsay Mendez), and discovers  that true connection and love is more than just what meets the eyes. 

With a book by Peter Duchan and music and lyrics by composing team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Dogfight is a terrific, solid new American musical. It also doesn’t hurt that it is directed by the (rightly) celebrated director and actor Joe Mantello (Other Desert Cities, as a director, and The Normal Heart, as an actor). (The evocative lighting design is by Paul Gallo and the multi-purpose set is by David Zinn.)

Pasek and Paul’s music works for the story and its time period. It is catchy and fresh. You can hear the duo’s influences, but the music is anything but derivative. They aren’t trying to be anyone else and they’re not copying anyone. Paul’s vocal arrangements and Michael Starobin’s orchestrations also add a powerful punch to the total score. 

The book is good, as well, showing off fine craft in the natural dialogue. And unlike some other screen-to-stage productions, this musical's book is not entirely lifted from the film. Yes, some of the movie's dialogue is used in the stage show, but there are plenty of Duchan's own words telling the story. As in the movie, a flashback is a framing device, with mixed results. By the end of the musical, you understand why they use the device, but its intrusion at the end of act one is more than unwelcome. (Note: I saw the show in early previews. The structure may have changed in the interim. There was no such middle of the movie intrusion.)

Speaking of the end of act one, let’s talk about the glorious “Isn’t it Funny.” This song closes the act and comes after the dogfight. And it’s absolutely devastating. It terrifically captures the way girls/women over analyze and justify things; the way we talk ourselves in and out of things; and how much of a female’s self-worth still comes from a man’s opinion of her - particularly of her looks. It is a much more powerful and poignant moment here than in the movie, and it's because of the song, 

Plus, the phenomenal Lindsay Mendez (Godspell) is singing the song so, you know, it’s out of this world! Mendez has created a character who is earnest and idealistic without being too naive. Mendez’s Rose is strong; she stands up for herself; and she is completely relatable. I was a little disappointed that Mendez didn’t get to show off her sassy belt voice, but her vocal chops are consummately incredible, and she did get to show off that.

None of Mendez’s cast mates shine quite as brightly as she does, but a couple come close. Annaleigh Ashford (Heathers) takes on a few characters, include a “dog for hire.” Her droll, dry delivery is a hoot. Nick Blaemire (Godspell) and Josh Segarra (Lysistrata Jones) do fine work as Marines Bernstein and Boland, with Blaemire bringing the immature goofiness (for most of the show) and Segarra bringing the aggressive male bravado. 

Derek Klena has a tough job in playing Birdlace. He’s likable for the first few minutes, but then he sets out on his quest to find a “dog” and it’s impossible to feel for him. Though he (predictably) tries, in act two, to make amends, I couldn’t help thinking it was too little, too late. (Although, Birdlace and Rose sing a song while en route to dinner that softened my grudge against the dodgy Marine.) Klena doesn’t really rise to the occasion. He’s not particularly charismatic and he’s not particularly powerful. He’s a bit milquetoast on stage. I suppose it could be said that this is a character choice - showing that he’s actually an underdog - but I just didn’t find him compelling. He has a great voice, though, and this being a musical, that definitely helps. (It's uncanny how much Derek Klena and Lindsay Mendez look like their film counterparts, River Phoenix and Lily Taylor. I'm wondering if Klena was cast mainly for his looks, seeing as his performance was forgettable.)

What Klena and the other Marines do successfully bring to light is the complex and disturbing psyche of the young people we send to war. They are young, immature and ill-trained. They are not nearly mentally prepared to fight in a war, to grasp the concept of killing people - possibly, though accidentally, civilians. Yet for all that, they display such bluster and a sickening sense of entitlement and superiority. It’s that kind of mentality that makes them think it’s okay to have a dogfight. Not knowing any Marines, I don’t know if this is an accurate portrayal of the culture, but these 1963 Marines aren’t so different from the early 90s ones portrayed in the excellent Jake Gyllenhaal film Jarhead, which looks exclusively at the psychological state of mind of Marines during the First Gulf War. Kudos to Duchan for bringing this to the story; the movie doesn't delve into the psychology of a Marine, and I think this deeper look at the Marines adds richness to the story.

While we're on the subject of the movie vs. the stage version, it's interesting to see where some of the songs or "underscoring" appears in the show as opposed to the film. For example, the movie and the show share the same ending, in terms of how the characters' journeys conclude, but the way the action plays out is different. In the show, they need a song to convey the emotional depth of what's happening, whereas in the film they just use close ups. You can't do "close ups" on stage, but you can sing a song, and it's mighty effective.

Without becoming too preachy or after-school-special on us, Dogfight nimbly tells Birdlace and Rose’s story, Marine entitlement and female image issues and all. It boasts an original and sophisticated score, a solid, smart book, and, best of all, the ready-to-break-out phenomenon that is Lindsay Mendez. I think Dogfight is going places; if I may be so bold, it is the next big sensation in musical theatre. So catch it now at Second Stage so you can say you’ve been a fan from the start.

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit Second Stage online.

Bonuses: Check out these production stills and this Vanity Fair profile of Pasek and Paul