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Aaron C. Finley

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Adam Kantor, Josh Grisetti and Bryan Fenkart in Diner at Signature Theatre. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Barry Levinson and Sheryl Crow team up to turn popular movie ‘Diner’ into a hit Broadway musical. 

Adam Kantor, Josh Grisetti and Bryan Fenkart in Diner at Signature Theatre. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Adam Kantor, Josh Grisetti and Bryan Fenkart in “Diner” at Signature Theatre. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

It is a challenge to turn a well-loved movie like “Diner” into a Broadway musical. That is what Barry Levinson, who wrote and directed the popular 1982 film, has done in collaboration with Sheryl Crow, who created the music and lyrics. And in the world premiere of “Diner” being showcased at Signature Theatre, Levinson and Crow have met that challenge and have produced a new musical that is destined to become a Broadway hit.

For the people who loved the movie, much of the remembered dialogue and atmosphere has been retained. There might have been some concern that new music, instead of the familiar hits of the 1950s, might be jarring. Crow, however, has created a score that successfully respects and recreates the sounds of that “rock and doo-wop” era.

“Diner” is set in the last week of 1959 when a group of male friends, all in their early 20s, gather for a wedding of one of them. They meet, as they always have, in an all-night Baltimore Diner, a place that actually existed. They find camaraderie and comfort in the all-male atmosphere in the early morning greasy burger, French fries and gravy and coffee where they indulge in inane conversations about the championship Baltimore Colts and the incomprehensibility of women. Women are never invited to be part of their Diner scene.

Levinson has retained the film’s episodic narrative with such memorable characters as Eddie (Adam Kantor) who will marrying Elyse (Tese Soltau) only if she can pass an oral football test; Boogie (Derek Klena) an aggressive womanizer with a gambling problem; Fenwick (Matthew James Thomas) a bright college dropout, who drinks too much; and the obsessive Shrevie, (Josh Grisetti) who has a spat with his wife, Beth (Erika Henningsen) because she doesn’t understand the filing system for his record collection.

The most effective device Levinson has added is a narrator: the Older Boogie (John Schiappa), a wise presence who guides us through the musical. He knows what the young men don’t know, that they will have to take on the adult responsibilities they are avoiding in the comfort of the Diner. Schiappa also portrays the street smart character, Bagel, an aluminum siding salesman.

The Diner, designed by Derek McLane, is so realistic that you could walk onto the set and order, and expect to be served, a burger and a shake. There is a large red Diner sign across the top of it, and the entire set opens to reveal booths and an authentic serving counter with the red and chrome stools.

“Diner” is the movie that made stars out of Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Steve Gutenberg, Ellen Barkin and Daniel Stern. Some of the most amusing parts of both the movie and the musical are the late night conversations. Levinson has a wonderful ear for meaningful discussions about meaningless things that take place when young men sit around in the early hours of the morning. His understanding of the Baltimore he knew growing up there was sensitively evident in his trilogy of films: “Diner,” “Tin Men,” and “Avalon,” and it continues here.

A major difference in the musical is that Levinson has written more meaningful roles for the women, who also are highlighted in Crow’s songs, “Don’t” and “Every Man Needs a Woman.” One of the characters, the driven Barbara (Whitney Bashor), is working toward a career as a television executive, an area generally closed to women in the ’50s. She is also facing an unwed pregnancy and doesn’t want to give up her budding career dreams to marry the baby’s father, Billy (Aaron C. Finley).

Crow has been careful in writing her music to be respectful of the ’50s. Her “Darling It’s You” could have been a top ten hit. While much of the music is energetic and lively, the dancing is the weakest part of this otherwise effectively directed and choreographed effort by Kathleen Marshall.

There is an undeserved romance about the ’50s. The music is an important part of that nostalgia, but as Levinson so sagely understands, the ’50s symbolized an ending of a time that was static and deserved to end. This “Diner” will be a hit, not only because it works as a musical 33 years after Levinson’s bitter-sweet movie, but because it is new and fresh and will be continuously performed for a number of years.

Diner continues through January 25, 2015 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, VA. Tickets are currently sold out. 

Aaron C. Finley

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