Musical 'Diner' sells out entire run at Signature Theatre [Update]

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Barry Levinson and Sheryl Crow make a satisfying musical meal out of 1982 film classic "Diner."

UPDATE: The entire run of "Diner" is sold out. Partial-view tickets (bar stool seats in the back of the theater's dress circle) go on sale one hour prior to each performance. 

With its slice of everyday life and dreams, not to mention a hefty schmear of wit and wisdom, Barry Levinson's film "Diner" slipped into the 1982 film season as a sleeper and pretty quickly attained the status of a classic.

The movie's passionate fans, who know every word and scene in this story about longtime Baltimore buddies, might bristle at the idea that the work could ever be adapted to any other medium, least of all a stage musical. But Levinson thinks otherwise, and the result is the remarkable new "Diner" being served up with relish at Signature Theatre in Arlington.

It's a modest, unassuming, slyly affecting work with a book by Levinson, music and lyrics by Sheryl Crow. Even people who don't know the film, or don't hold it in high regard, should find themselves easily drawn in and continually engaged.

When initial plans for a Broadway opening for "Diner" fell through, Signature came to the rescue and made the premiere a prominent part of the Tony Award-winning company's 25th anniversary season. (I can't help but wish that a theater in Baltimore, Levinson's hometown, had stepped up to play this role.)

Whether "Diner" will go on to enjoy anything like the film's success remains to be seen. But the world premiere production certainly gives the piece a stylish and vibrant launch.

It seems that a movie gets transformed into a musical every two or three days. But don't think of mentioning "Diner" in the same breath as, say, "Ghost," "Flashdance" and "Beaches" (premiered recently at Signature). This show stands out in several ways.

For one thing, it never tries too hard, never pushes. Levinson just tells his story and keeps everything honest, with much of the dialogue directly from the screenplay. There's nary a hint of corporate mentality or gloss (in that respect, "Diner" recalls another admirable, small-scale movie-turned-musical, "Once").

And the score, which deftly evokes the late '50s and hints at the '60s, springs naturally from the situations. That many of the songs, intentionally or not, seem to last about the length of a 45 record, adds to the authentic flavor of the show.

But Crow has not just settled for a nostalgia fest. Her melodic lines and chord progressions have a freshness and sophistication that stands out all the more given the generic stuff found in many a musical nowadays, and her lyrics largely avoid the commonplace.

The musical "Diner" has the same modest ambitions as the movie and, thanks to the sensitive Signature staging, achieves the same sort of intimacy. 

You're not really just an audience here. You're more like patrons in a booth at the eatery so deftly conjured up by Derek McLane's scenic design (adapted by James Kronzer), overhearing conversations, getting caught up in all the schemes and little dramas that feed "Diner."

Director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall draws from her tightly meshed cast performances that feel effortless. It's not a case of imitating the actors from the movie, but aiming for the same level of sensibility and finesse, whether in the dialogue or in song. The dancing, too, fits right in, thanks to Marshall's way of making the steps look spontaneous and inevitable. 

Levinson streamlined things for the stage, but all the principal characters, friends since childhood now in their early 20s, are here. So are most of the familiar incidents, right down to the movie house scene with a strategically placed box of popcorn.

The guys who hang out at the diner, just because they always have, know they can't do so forever. As much as they try to hold on to the past, the future keeps tugging at them, insisting they grow up, make tough decisions, settle down.

So it's a big deal when Eddie (Adam Kantor) plans to marry Elyse (Tess Soltau) in the waning days of 1959, provided she can pass a tough quiz about the Baltimore Colts -- Eddie's way of determining long-term compatibility.

The already married Shrevie (Josh Grisetti) wishes he had more in common with his wife, Beth (Erika Henningsen). Grad student Billy (Aaron C. Finley) has an unexpected reason to get closer to his casual girlfriend Barbara (Whitney Bashor), a career woman who has her eye on breaking the glass ceiling.

The ungrounded Fenwick (Matthew James Thomas), the exceedingly literal Modell (Bryan Fenkart) and the ever-gambling Boogie (Derek Klena) round out the gang.

The musical, presented in flashback, introduces Older Boogie (John Schiappa), who serves as a guide for the time travel. He provides background and, to sometimes sobering effect, reveals what will happen to each of the central figures in the days (or mere hours) ahead.

The time-honored narrator device doesn't always click smoothly. It also turns to cliche at times, especially at the end, with talk of how "the world was about to radically change." But Schiappa handles the assignment neatly.

Kantor's colorful delivery and twitching legs make Eddie's mix of bravado and angst palpable. Grisetti is a sympathetic Shrevie, and Fenkart does a witty job as the over-thinking Modell. Finley gets to the heart of Billy, notably through his tender singing of "Please Be There," one of the score's strong ballads.

With his elastic body and wry smile, Thomas is a standout as Fenwick, allowing the insecure guy behind the indifference to emerge.

There's a star turn, too, by Klena, who captures Boogie's hipness factor as adeptly as he reveals his heart, and brings to his music a warm tone and impeccable phrasing. Klena also gets to sport the most stylish items created by the show's expert costume designer Paul Tazewell. 

This "Diner" opens up a little more opportunities for the female characters than the movie did, and the cast members seize those opportunities. Bashor proves particularly impressive, nowhere more so than in her  singing of "Don't," an almost Supremes-like anthem that lets her speak for many a '50s woman: "I move my lips, but no one hears one word I say."     

Some of the supporting cast could use a little more vividness, but everyone gets in the overall groove. The score enjoys a consistent boost from the polished band led by Lon Hoyt. 

There are some amusing surprises along the way in the show, including wise men who pop up to boogie in the scene where Fenwick invades a nativity set (the context keeps it from going over the top).

And the scene in the strip club, where the guys take refuge before the wedding, opens up with a startling force, matching the fun of the equivalent moment in the film (Crow's rousing song "Gotta Lotta Woman" delivers quite a kick here).

There is room to tighten the piece in spots, or even to expand it. (The oddball character in the cinematic "Diner," who turns up amusingly a couple times spouting dialogue from the movie "Sweet Smell of Success," gets only one appearance here, which just makes him seem superfluous.)

But, on the whole, the transformation from screen to stage has been handled in a telling fashion, preserving the essence of the original and adding effective spice. It adds up to a substantial new musical that has been given a thoroughly satisfying production. It's cool to hang out in this "Diner."

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If you go

"Diner" runs through Jan. 25 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va. Tickets are $29-$80. For more information, call 703-820-9771 or go to signature-theatre.org.

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