The latest old Hollywood film to get the stage musical treatment is an unusual choice: a 1991 box office flop called Dogfight that starred River Phoenix and Lili Taylor as an unlikely couple who meet on a fateful night in November 1963, just weeks before the JFK assassination. Now playing at Off Broadway's Second Stage Theatre through Aug. 19, Dogfight is a mostly promising recruit that isn't quite ready for the frontline.
The story centers on a young Vietnam-bound Marine named Birdlace (Carrie's Derek Klena), who joins his buddies in San Francisco for a pranksterish contest to rustle up the homeliest date for the night. His belated choice for the so-called dogfight is Rose (Godspell's Lindsay Mendez), an awkward waitress in her mom's diner who loves Woody Guthrie and aspires to join the Peace Corps. As in the film, Mendez' Rose is far, far from a dog. But her discovery of the cruel competition leads to an explosion and to Birdlace's earnest attempts to make good.
The score, by relative newcomers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, includes some arresting songs: The Marines' lively opening trio ''Some Kinda Time'' and the duet ''First Date/Last Night'' are melodic standouts. But Birdlace and Rose's second-act solos feel especially strained, and musically the show feels almost literally out of time. The score evokes neither the sounds of 1963 (or any of the folkies that Rose adores) nor anything remotely 2012. Mostly, it's just Musical Theater Lite.
The overall production offers similarly jarring juxtapositions. Peter Duchan's book is generally faithful to the period, except when it strays into some glaring anachronisms like a punchline about a character named Vector (''Vector? I hardly knew her''). Birdlace's fellow Marines are macho and often mean-spirited (there's a brothel-set scene that borders on date rape), but such displays of jacked-up masculinity are undermined by Christopher Gattelli's overly fussy choreography. Joe Mantello directs with a mostly straightforward naturalism, except when he stoops to bits of broader comedy. Dierdre Friel gets some laughs as a dogfight contestant who's a dead ringer for SNL's Bobby Moynihan, but her mugging belongs to a different show.
The biggest shortcoming may be that the Marines mostly remain types, and Birdlace a cipher. We never learn what motivates him to choose Rose, or to ask her out after the contest is exposed. As a result, the show's second act fails to have the emotional impact that the creators clearly intend. (I'd also recommend tightening the show and losing the intermission altogether.) B–
(Tickets: 2st.com or 212-246-4422)