It's her first date and his last night before leaving for Vietnam. It's also 1963 and, for fun, a gaggle of baby Marines bets who can bring the ugliest girl to their last party before setting out to become American heroes. Or so they think.
In other words, "Dogfight," a new musical based on the 1991 indie film starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor, crossbreeds a handful of well-worn plot strands into a familiar pattern. And yet, for all the old-time predictability of the wartime setup and the shoehorned topicality of a message about bullying, the show turns into an intimate little heartbreaker of beguiling freshness.
Much credit must go to director Joe Mantello ("Other Desert Cities," "Wicked") and choreographer Christopher Gattelli ("Newsies"), who tightly layer the small stage with show-biz smarts and the nuanced sensitivity of real drama.
The musical introduces a strong young cast -- especially Lindsay Mendez and Derek Klena -- that juggles toughness and innocence as if this were easy. And very good news is the songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, making their professional New York debut with a project that won them the 2011 Richard Rodgers Studio Production Award.
In just over two hours, including intermission, they offer 16 fully realized songs that effortlessly move from '60s bouffant pop to stirring folk pop, from sweet, unselfconscious love songs to the dry, mean staccato rhythms of "Assassins"-era Sondheim.
Mendez is irresistibly lucid and musically fearless as Rose, a less-than-willowy girl who works in her mom's diner, writes socially conscious folk songs and dreams of romance. Klena combines the bluff of a clueless soldier with a sensitive undercurrent as Eddie, who invites her to the party because he thinks she's ugly enough to win.
On a tiny turntable set with a metal catwalk (sets and perfect costumes by David Zinn), Mantello and Gattelli manage to collide mean-boy soldiers, ugly-duckling victims and world-weary grown-ups with both testosterone bravado and hopeful awkwardness. The flash-forward to battle is unnecessary, but, surprisingly, even the inevitable trip to the whorehouse with the virgin nerd has a good and furious heart.
WHERE Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St., Manhattan
INFO $68-$84; 212-246-4422; 2ST.com
BOTTOM LINE New musical with old story but fresh smarts