Fear not, “Diner” fans: The world-premiere musical version at Signature Theatre faithfully replicates the outrageous movie-house scene from Barry Levinson’s beloved 1982 film, the one in which slightly creepy ladies’ man Boogie hides a, ahem, special treat for his date in the popcorn box in his lap.
The surprise is that around this memorable moment, composer-lyricist Sheryl Crow and book writer Levinson fashion a splendid up-tempo number, “Don’t Give It All Away.” The female patrons rise from their seats and sing to the screen, cheekily warning the picture’s clueless ingénue that her Lothario is up to no good. As if, in the it’s-a-man’s-world culture of 1959, guys would be up to anything else.
The song is successful because it sets the scene in exuberant relief and wittily comments on one of the musical’s major themes: the narrow corridors women were forced into at the time, as housewives, secretaries or sex objects. It’s also the sort of interlude the new musical needs a lot more of, to eradicate what is otherwise a nagging flatness of execution and the sense that Levinson and Crow are still groping for an optimal structure to unite music, characters and story.
There’s no reason to believe these two consummate pros might not achieve a musicalized “Diner” of real distinction, one that distills in even livelier ways Levinson’s richly detailed film about a group of Baltimore buddies who don’t yet know how to behave like men. The production at Signature — directed and choreographed by Broadway’s Kathleen Marshall and all but sold out through the end of January — is a useful first-draft exercise for them. It’s also worthwhile for anyone who loves the film, Crow’s music or the opportunity to meet on the ground floor a show that aspires to higher levels. It may be ripped from the big screen, as so many musicals are nowadays. But given the seriousness of the effort here, “Diner” the musical is not a rip-off.
On the upside, count the integrity of Crow’s score, a diversified and at the same time cohesive exhibition of a pastiche, in this case, of the musical sounds of the late ’50s. As played by a six-member band conducted by Lon Hoyt, you hear a variety of beats, the influence of doo-wop and early rock-and-roll, sly tributes to Elvis and Little Richard. It doesn’t indulge in camp, a la “Grease” or “Hairspray”; it’s like an alternative universe of Crow-built chart-toppers. The tone ranges from glee (the rafter-raising “Gotta Love Women”) to outrage (the gripping “Tear Down This House”). And if the songs are not perfectly in sync with Levinson’s wryer urbanity (or do not always represent seamless segues), they’re always infused, like much of Crow’s work, with a satisfying melodic urgency.
The replication of choice small moments from a movie filled with them can also be fun: the diner argument in which Modell (a funny Bryan Fenkart) refuses to acknowledge to Eddie (a well-cast Adam Kantor) his desire for the remains of Eddie’s sandwich; the administering of the football trivia quiz that Elyse (Tess Soltau) has to pass before Eddie will go through with the marriage; the petty fight instigated by Shrevie (Josh Grisetti) after wife Beth (a supple-voiced Erika Henningsen) fails to properly re-file one of his record albums. Under Marshall’s direction, some scenes don’t reveal themselves as charmingly or with the same discomfiting authenticity as on the screen, an indication of the challenge of bottling the film’s singular brand of observational comedy.
That essential fragility leads to other, more glaring problems. For instance: the addition as narrator of a character, Older Boogie (John Schiappa), who’s not only a hackneyed device but also bears little resemblance, in temperament or countenance, to young Boogie (Derek Klena). Trouble, too, develops in the form of thematic overkill, a tendency to announce a theme again and again. One of these has to do with 1959 as a preamble year to social change in America, and another with the era’s oppressive attitudes about women.
“The fabulous ’50s might have been fabulous, but not necessarily if you were a female,” Older Boogie tells us. His commentary is superfluous because the idea is embedded in virtually every scene. In the laudable effort to expand the dramatic palette of “Diner,” more attention is paid to the women of the story: Beth, in her stultifying marriage to Shrevie; hapless Elyse, waiting humiliatingly for Eddie’s marital green light; Barbara (Whitney Bashor), the aspiring TV newswoman whose tryst with Billy (Aaron C. Finley) results in a career-threatening pregnancy. One could wish, though, some of the embellishment revealed more about these women than how they feel about the men.
Levinson also has to cram in all the men’s stories, and that means quick cuts to dissolute, self-destructive Fenwick (Matthew James Thomas) and the musical’s apparent touchstone, Boogie, who is on the hook to loan sharks (and on the road, Older Boogie assures us, to maturity and respectability). It’s a lot of character thread to unspool.
The cast is uniformly competent; perhaps because these characters, suggested by the Baltimore world of Levinson’s youth, were molded so inspirationally by the actors in the movie (Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Ellen Barkin, Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Tim Daly, et al.) there wasn’t much room for the cast to amplify, much less reinvent, vivid personalities. The design elements, most notably Derek McLane and James Kronzer’s rendering of the diner, with its art deco metalwork and red-and-white vinyl booths, are rewardingly evocative of the period.
It would be a fine thing if “Diner” found its footing, lived longer and prospered. Having achieved so much in their own popular art forms, Crow and Levinson are still learning to maneuver creatively in this one. Building a great show is exhausting. An audience wishes them the energy to persevere and triumph.
Book by Barry Levinson, music and lyrics by Sheryl Crow. Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. Sets, Derek McLane and James Kronzer; music direction, Lon Hoyt; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; sound, Lane Elms; orchestrations, Mitchell Froom; wigs, Charles G. LaPointe. With Maria Egler, Aaron C. Finley, Nova Y. Payton, Russell Sunday, John Leslie Wolfe, Colleen Hayes. About 2 hours and 40 minutes. Through Jan. 25 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. www.signature-theatre.org or call 703-573-SEAT. The run has only scattered tickets left; the theater advises checking the Web site for availability.