This Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Peter Duchan musical based on the 1991 film, was first performed in 2012. It begins and ends in 1967 but mostly occurs four years earlier. We see three US marines – calling themselves the three Bees – living it up in San Francisco on their last night before deployment to the Vietnam War. They indulge in a grossly offensive macho game called Dogfight in which they compete to dance with the ugliest girl each can find. The main action, however, concerns the subversion of the game by the love between the marine Eddie Birdlace and the cafe waitress Rose Fenney.
The St Jude’s production, effectively directed by Brian Godfrey, was well balanced and at times very affecting. The leads, Ruby Pinkerton as Rose, and Gus Robson as Eddie, gave sustained and moving performances. Their characterisation was both strong and subtle and their interaction was central to the play’s success. Pinkerton bore the biggest musical load of all the cast and did so with distinction. The pair’s duets, too, were both well sung and – importantly – well acted. At their best, they clearly explored their characters’ emotional states, especially when showing vulnerability. Robson was impressive in times of studied silence and reflection, while also roughing it with his marine buddies.
This musical is cleverly written. It has the valuable distinction of often having the songs carry the action and plot forward, rather than merely illustrating or expanding on an event or mood. Before The Party, Pretty Funny and Take Me Back are good examples of that. In this production the soloists and ensemble all contributed to the required effect.
The other two Bees, Boland and Bernstein, played by Simon Barnett and Steve Lewis, differentiated well with each other and with Birdlace. Barnett was strong and edgy in both song and dialogue, and Lewis was charmingly naïve and believable as the marine determined to lose his virginity. Among the other cast, Sarah Whalen certainly grabbed our attention with her characterisation of the brash prostitute, Marcy.
The band, placed upstage, and led by MD and pianist Ben Stefanoff, was splendid. They combined well with each other and the singers. Sound balance was well maintained at all times – supporting the singers and movement. Further, and critically, during scene changes their timing was precise.
The programme noted that the majority of the cast were not yet born in the time of the Vietnam War, yet had done the necessary research to get an understanding of that war and its times. The same cannot be said of the majority of the audience who had an automatic connection there, and so appreciated the references. That was especially true of our reaction to the rejection of Birdlace by the anti-war hippie, after he returned at the end of his time in Vietnam.
The set was functional enough and made good use of the upper balcony level in particular. The movement coach, Jethro Pidd, did well to introduce as much dance and movement as he did, given the tightness of the stage area. Thanks to the moderate cast size, things never looked crowded.
This musical in turn challenged, confronted and amused us and ultimately reassured us. It’s not only worth seeing, it should be seen.