“Diner,” Barry Levinson’s 1982 film about six Baltimore chums savoring their last gasps of 1950s adolescence, has been turned by scripter Levinson and songwriter/lyricist Sheryl Crow into a musical that’s just as touching and entertaining as the movie. Making a low-key debut at Arlington, Va.’s Signature Theater, with no announced future plans, the show reflects an extensive overhaul conducted since its aborted rollout two years ago. But now, a gleaming “Diner,” with sparkling contributions from Crow, is decidedly open for business.
The show, which partners musical theater novices Levinson and Crow with director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, has weathered a sharp detour that all parties agree was warranted. The decisive turn came in a revealing workshop that prompted cancellations of both a 2012 San Francisco tryout and a 2013 Broadway engagement. There has since been a change in producers from Scott Zeiger to Scott Landis, Marshall’s husband.
In search of a cozy locale to sample the revised menu, Landis approached Signature, a venue that specializes in developing new musicals. Signature a.d. Eric Schaeffer and his team slipped the tuner into its season while taking a supportive role in helping “Diner” find its legs. The show has immediately clicked with D.C. auds, selling out its seven-week run at Signature’s 276-seat Max Theater well before opening night.
As in the film, “Diner” the musical remains a nostalgic look at a colorful era compressed into a few eventful days at the close of 1959. It faithfully reprises the enduring characters that helped launch the careers of Mickey Rourke, Paul Reiser, Kevin Bacon, Steve Guttenberg, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern and Tim Daly.
In the hands of the Signature’s talented ensemble, the sports and trivia-obsessed troupe still rolls along in frat-party mode. Modell the moocher (Brian Fenkart) again inquires, “You gonna finish that?” with unsubtle interest, while Baltimore Colts fanatic Eddie (Adam Kantor) again subjects fiancee Elyse to his uncompromising sports quiz. The classic Baltimore diner remains a male-only bastion, its bright neon sign dominating Derek McLane’s functional set.
But this time around, the ladies get equal billing as the story ponders adulthood from the perspective of both sexes. It’s a welcome new element that surely broadens the show’s appeal. Included in the tuner is a nicely drawn Elyse (Tess Soltau), a key character who was omitted entirely from the film. In another nice touch, the story is presented in retrospect by an elderly Boogie (John Schiappa), the cool dude played with savvy by Derek Klena when the character is younger.
Crow has written a delightful assortment of doo-wop, R&B and early rock-n-roll melodies that might have comprised a ’50s hit parade themselves if the songwriter had come along sooner. They are filled with delicious harmonies and enhanced by insightful lyrics that aggressively advance the plot.
All are sung beautifully by the accomplished ensemble. Standouts include “Tear Down This House,” Crow’s anthem for Beth (Erika Henningsen), who is snared in a disappointing marriage to the clueless Shrevie (Josh Grisetti). It follows the humorous R&B number, “It’s Good,” the male perspective on marriage. Later, the men admit the obvious in the jaunty “You’ve Got a Lot to Learn,” and wind up affairs with the high-spirited “Gotta Lotta Woman.”
The gals also state their case in act two’s rousing “Every Man Needs a Woman,” then tone it down nicely with “Don’t,” Barbara’s (Whitney Bashor) emotional response to an untimely pregnancy. Another keeper is the emotional “For What It’s Worth,” which also features Henningsen, the ensemble’s strongest female voice. The women are adorned throughout in Paul Tazewell’s colorful ’50s attire.
Like the film, the musical version of “Diner” studiously balances the humorous with the melancholy within a strict parameter that depicts the classic battle-of-the-sexes struggle as one of maturity-versus-adolescence. The theme is reinforced by Schiappa’s apologetic adult, who quietly slips from the shadows to set scenes and condemn the boys’ misdeeds.
It’s underscored further by director Marshall’s careful, unhurried pacing that affords equal treatment to high and low elements. An example is the plaintive and mood-setting “Please Be There,” a terrific Act One number from strong tenor Aaron C. Finley, inserted between more spirited numbers from the guys.
Marshall’s choreography varies as warranted, from subtle to outlandish. The former includes a delightful scene at the hair salon, where the flirtatious Beth and Boogie sing “Darling, It’s You.” They’re accompanied by a harmonizing trio of ladies seated under hair dryers, casually crossing legs and flipping through magazines in time to a vintage sax-infused beat. The other end of the spectrum is showcased in a chorus of three wise men who enliven a comical scene at a holiday creche.
Unquestionably, “Diner” represents an exciting new venture for Crow and Levinson. Catering to audiences who like to wax nostalgic with shows like “Million Dollar Quartet,” this “Diner” offers real possibilities as a bona fide commercial contender.