You want to put on a letter sweater, grab some pom-poms and root for Diner, the world premiere musical based on Barry Levinson’s seminal male-bonding movie, to find its way.
The ingredients are there—Levinson’s a great storyteller and has a knack for indelible, oddball characters. Sheryl Crow’s doing the music and lyrics, need we say more?
And the source material is killer. The 1982 film depicts a group of college-age guys in 1959 Baltimore hanging out at a classic silver diner and hanging onto their adolescence for as long as they can. They shoot the breeze about the Baltimore Colts and girls over French fries and gravy, and their banter belies their real anxieties about what it means to be a man and assume responsibilities.
Lord knows, they are not ready. Fenwick (the talented Matthew James Thomas) is a hard-drinking lost boy with a trust fund. Modell (Bryan Fenkart) is so unsure of himself he can’t even ask his best friends for what he wants.
The lady-killer Boogie (Derek Klena, slippery and seductive) is up to his pompadour in gambling debts and his idea of romance involves inserting a certain part of his anatomy into a popcorn box in his lap as a special kind of snack for his movie date Carol (Colleen Hayes). This famous scene from the film has been exuberantly broadened for the stage in the upbeat number “Don’t Give It All Away,” where the women rise from their seats to sing to the screen—an unseen tearjerker flickering across their faces as they plead for the heroine to wise up and see that her fella is a bad egg.
The women of Diner certainly have experience with jerks in the male supremacy milieu of the late ‘50s. Eddie (Adam Kantor, an appealing bundle of nerves) channels his unease about upcoming nuptials to Elyse (Tess Soltau) by insisting she take a 170-question football quiz or the wedding’s off. Shrevie (Josh Grisetti) vents his discontent about his marriage to Beth (Erika Henningsen) by ragging on her about stupid things, like the filing system for his record collection. Barbara (Whitney Bashor) is trying to make it in the macho world of television production and every man at the station is gunning for her to fail.
Opening up Diner to include the flipside of the fabulous Fifties—which were anything but fab for women—is an inspired move and showcases Crow’s talent for incisive lyrical hooks. It seems like a waste to saddle Crow with a ‘50s music pastiche—the doo-wop choruses, the Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard swoops and whoops, the girl group sob stories—but she breaks through the non-novelty of the nostalgic score with the standout torch songs “Tear Down This House,” “Don’t” and “Every Man Needs a Woman.” In all three songs, Crow powerfully conveys the frustrations the women of this period feel as they are crammed into the constricting roles of housewife, secretary or sexual plaything.
The women of Diner are so strong that they nearly outshine the men, who seem to be a bit lacking in the character development department. Much of this may have to do with the talent of cast members Soltau, Henningsen, Bashor and Hayes, but the culprit also lies in the current structure of the show, which is quite cinematic in its approach of having one scene drift in after another, almost like a musical conveyor belt. A scene with the boys gabbing at the diner is followed by one showing the vexation of the women, and then we switch back to the diner guys, and so on and on.
Closes January 25, 2015
4200 Campbell Avenue
2 hours, 40 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $29 – $99
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Transitions are often marked by street corner doo-wop singers wailing away like cut-rate Jersey Boys, which does little to alleviate the pervasive flatness of the staging and the show’s dogged structure.
A narrator, in the form of an older version of Boogie (John Schiappa), drifts in and out to offer extraneous commentary, often yakking about something we’ve just seen or a frankly awful coda where he tells us what happens to the main characters. In this capacity, Older Boogie is more of a nuisance than a unifying device. And the creators may want to rethink the requisite shapely-black-woman-raises-the-rafters number, which is the stereotypical requirement for nearly every Broadway show, in this case Nova Y. Payton playing a bombastic-voiced stripper shaking her stuff for a white male audience in “Gotta Lotta Woman.”
Diner could use more integration between the man’s world and that of the women and you also wish some of the songs captured the conversational flow of the diner guys’ back-and-forth banter instead of having them talk and then burst into a ‘50s-style song that does not organically rise out of a situation.
With the talents of Levinson, Crow and Marshall, you feel hopeful Diner will find its groove. Right now, it is an intriguing bundle of potential.
Diner . Music and lyrics by Sheryl Crow . Book by Barry Levinson . Based on the motion picture written and directed by Barry Levinson . Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall . Featuring
MaryLee Adams, Whitney Bashor, Maria Egler, Bryan Fenkart, Aaron C. Finley, Josh Grisetti, Colleen Hayes, Erika Henningsen, Adam Kantor, Derek Klena, David Little, Ben Lurye, Mitch Marois, Nova Y. Payton, John Schiappa, Tess Soltau,Lou Steele, Russell Sunday, Matthew James Thomas,and John Leslie Wolfe . Assistant Director: Paige Kiliany . Associate Choreographer: David Eggers . Music Director: Lon Hoyt . Orchestrator: Mitchell Froom . Set Designer: Derek McLane . Scenery Adapted by James Kronzer . Costume Designer: Paul Tazewell . Wig Designer: Charles LaPointe . Lighting Designer: Peter Kaczorowski . Sound Designer: Lane Elms . Production Stage Manager: Kerry Epstein assisted by Allie Roy . Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.