Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Signature’s Serves up an Original Hit: You’ll Want Seconds at This "Diner"

By Mark A. Newman
Photo by Christopher Mueller

Admittedly, the number of rock stars who have made the jump from the iPod to the stage has been a mixed bag. For every Kinky Boots by Cyndi Lauper there’s a half dozen Hands on a Hardbody by Phish frontman Trey Anastasio. Not to say Hands on a Hardbody was bad (in fact, I enjoyed it more than Kinky Boots), but it didn’t stick around for long.

Thankfully, the world premiere of Diner at the Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia, with a score by Sheryl Crow based on the Barry Levinson film from 1982, has the chops to be a hit. No doubt it’s a risky endeavor to turn an extremely beloved film that is quoted by a generation into a musical, but if it worked for those crazy Pythons with The Holy Grail (which begat Spamalot, another rollicking hit), then good golly, Miss Molly, why not Diner, a film that launched the careers of a handful of Hollywood household names (Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Steve Gutenberg…well, depends on the household I suppose).  

Knowing that the songs would reflect the show’s time period – 1959 – I was a bit apprehensive; doo-wop and crooners are not spilling from my ear buds, bud. Boy was I pleasantly surprised by Crow’s enigmatic score. Yes, it did reflect the last year of Dwight Eisenhower’s administration but it also had the hallmark of a contemporary songwriter in her prime. The songs are, in a word, gorgeous, and probably one of the best original score’s I’ve heard from a pop star since David Byrne’s collaboration with Fatboy Slim for the amazing Here Lies Love. It would take too long to go down the list but “Please Be There,” “Tear Down This House,” “Don’t,” and “Last Man Standing” are just a few of the standouts. This is one of those scores that needs to be preserved by the original cast as soon as possible!

Levinson’s book is lovingly faithful to his screenplay of the film, however there have been some welcomed – and frankly, needed – changes made, most notably recognizing that women of the 1950s actually had thoughts, feelings, opinions, desires, and personalities all their own even though – as it is stressed in the show – it was not the best time to be a woman (or black, or gay, or…well anything not straight and male). Levinson essentially used his remarkable movie as a guide for what was created on stage and it’s easily one of the most seamless movie-to-stage adaptations I have ever seen. The spirit of the film is alive and well in Levinson’s book.

Broadway legend Kathleen Marshall is overseeing the direction and choreography duties for Diner and the staging is perfect. Set among the confines of the eponymous eatery – sumptuously rendered by Derek McLane – the actors, singers, dancers all move fluidly from scene to scene. Considering the Signature’s space limitations and further limitations by a diner sitting amidst the action throughout the show, Marshall’s direction is key to really keeping the action moving and flowing like a well-oiled singing and dancing machine. From big numbers to intimate moments, Marshall’s direction was vital to Diner’s appetizing production.

Aside from McLane’s sets, Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting, Paul Tazewell’s costumes, Lane Elms’ sound, and especially Charles LaPointe’s wigs brought the Baltimore denizens of another era to life on stage. The look and feel of the show was authentic without looking dated; rather than looking back the audience was made to feel like it was collectively time traveling. While some period shows have the effect of “let’s see what’s in the old trunk” and come off as dusty reruns, the show’s design team immersed the audience into another time with remarkable ease.

And then there’s the cast. Holy cow, what a cast! Easily the best cast that has trod the boards at Signature, at least in the time I’ve been attending shows there. That’s not to say other casts were not up to the job. It’s just that this cast was so amazing that they have left an indelible standard that will be impossible to match, much less surpass, in the future.

The show is framed by the narration of Older Boogie (John Schiappa) as he looks back on “those crazy times.” While it comes awfully close to the tired tropes employed by many a one-person show – “And there’s me…why, look at me. I was so wild back then. And then there’s…” – the conceit is used sparingly enough to actually inform the audience while providing the occasional update. For example, through Older Boogie we learn that one of our boys will be dead shortly after the curtain falls while one will be a multi-millionaire in a couple of decades. It works and it works quite well.

If life was fair, Derek Klena as Younger Boogie would not be in this show; he would still be in The Bridges of Madison County on Broadway which closed way too soon last season. However, here he is, and he’s the closest the show has to a leading man even though the duties are fairly equally shared by the six actors portraying our diner inhabitants. As Billy, Aaron C. Finley gets one of the sweetest songs (“Please Be There”) and he has the charisma and vocal chops to boot. Plus, of all the actors, he looks the most like his movie counterpart, Timothy Daly. Trust me, if you’re a fan of the movie, you’ll spend the first scene matching the actors to their movie counterparts. For the record, as Modell, Bryan Fenkart almost channels movie Modell Paul Reiser’s tempo word for word and he’s hilarious and natural in what could’ve been a thankless role (Modell is the only of the diner boys without a solo or a duet).

Adam Kantor is perfectly cast as Eddie (Steve Gutenburg in the film), the sports-loving groom-to-be with cold feet and there could not have been a better actor to portray Shrevie, the music-obsessed wise guy, than Josh Grisetti. However, if the show were to be stolen, it would be by Matthew James Thomas as Fenwick, the hard-drinking, slacker who is a better Peter Pan than Mary Martin. He really cuts loose in “Last Man Standing” that ends with him clad only in his boxer shorts, and in the mournful “Letting Go,” where we see the real pain behind the party. Truly a standout tour de force performance in a show full of astounding performances.

Unlike the movie, the female characters move front and center somewhat to fully show how life was for the ladies back in 1959. Yeah, it wasn’t great but the women of the cast prove they’re up for the challenge. As Elyse, Eddie’s bride-to-be..maybe, Tess Soltau is charming which is especially noteworthy since the character was only alluded to in the movie. Whitney Bashor’s Barbara – Billy’s almost girlfriend – gets a wonderful moment to lament her life’s choices in “Don’t.” But the performance that brings down the house is in a number called, well, “Tear Down This House,” where Erika Henningsen as Beth, Shrevie’s neglected wife, rattles the rafters as she laments her station in life. This is easily the standout song and performance in the entire show.

Damn the hyperbole, but if you plan to see only one show for the rest of your life at Signature, this is the one! I’m going back for seconds!

Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Avenue
Arlington, VA 22206

Book: Barry Levinson
Music & Lyrics: Sheryl Crow
Director & Choreographer: Kathleen Marshall
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
Assistant Stage Manager: Allie Roy
Tickets: 703-820-9771; ticketmaster: 703-573-SEAT tickets@signature-theatre.org

Information: http://www.signature-theatre.org/

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