Welcome back to the first of my theatre blogs! While we are putting together the next Tidewater events for our 2015-2016 season, I thought I would take the down time to explore the local theatrical arena with the first of my regional reviews. Following is my review of the pre-Broadway tryout of Barry Levinson and Cheryl Crow’s Diner at the Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington.
REVIEW – Diner: Closed for Renovations
There has been a year of anticipation and a lot of current buzz about the pre-Broadway tryout of the new musical Diner, with book by Barry Levinson and music by Cheryl Crow. Originally produced at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, after initial lukewarm reviews, the production team opted to rework the piece and stage a second tryout at the Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington before pursuing plans to proceed to New York. This was definitely a good move.
Based on Levinson’s 1982 cult classic movie, for which he also penned the screenplay, Diner recounts the stories of six young working class men coming of age in Baltimore in the final days of the 50s, the last decade of their and the world’s innocence, who frequent a local diner every night to continue their lifelong bond.
The classic Diner guys unfold to us here through the eyes of Boogie (Derek Klena), a smooth talking cover boy and the default leader of the group. We meet Eddie (Ari Brand), a (literally) pending bridegroom who has established he will only marry his intended if she can pass his beloved Baltimore Colts trivia test; Shrevie (Noah Weisberg), the sadder but wiser married guy; Modell (Ethan Slater), the butt of everyone’s jokes; Billy (John E. Brady), the golden boy who went to college to better himself but returns with a dilemma; and Fenwick (Matthew James Thomas), the trust fund brat with a heart of gold. During wedding preparations, we meet their girls: Eddie’s fiancee Elyse, (Tess Soltau), Shrevie’s long suffering wife Beth (Erika Henningsen), and Billy’s platonic turned real girlfriend Barbara (Brynn O’Malley), a local newsroom associate with substantial news of her own.
The cast is a solid ensemble and enjoyable throughout, gamely handling everything the production team throws at them. The trio of leading ladies all have big voices and are each given opportunity to show them off. The guys likewise all show very capable vocals but, as they should, shine brightest when they are working together as a unit, displaying easy chemistry in a sum that is way greater than its components. Individually, they all are equal part man/boys with juvenile behaviors that halt their maturity, especially when contrasted with their more grown female counterparts. Besides Eddie’s childish sports obsession, Boogie is a victim of his own perceived infallibility, Billy an unrealistic romantic, Modell the lapdog begging (but not asking, as the joke goes) for attention, Shrevie has an obsession that vies Eddie’s with his vinyl collection, and Fenwick is the perpetual party boy looking for the happiness his money can’t buy. They only falter when, through no fault of theirs, they clash with the memory of the movie actors that immortalized the characters to those who know them, which is inevitable when one transfers a classic movie to stage, and must be taken into consideration in the transition.
Sometimes the disparity works. Brand, for instance, is physically the anti-Steve Guttenberg but succeeds digging for humor as a squirrelly, more intense Eddie. He’s not just a sports superfan, he’s a sports supernerd with great neurotic delivery. His interpretation and physicality have more levels than that of the hunky Guttenberg. On the other hand, Klena’s Boogie is a charming, sincere pretty boy, conveniently likeable as our de facto narrator. Yet when Boogie gets involved in organized crime or has a string of sleazy encounters with the ladies, these actions seem totally out of character for Klena’s winsome, cleancut persona, yet right at home with rougher, low class Mickey Rourke in the movie.
Other times there is no disparity. Weisberg’s Shrevie mines humor as a jaded, surprisingly misogynistic (although it is 1959) husband with particularly retentive tendencies regarding his strictly categorized LPs and evokes young Daniel Stern. Slater’s hanger on Modell is as hilariously neurotic and desperate as young Paul Reiser. Brady is just as golden as young Tim Daly, and standout Thomas has perhaps even more charm as party boy with a dark soul than young Kevin Bacon (if that is even possible). Also the actor with the most substantial resume (fresh off playing the title roles in Pippin and Spiderman on Broadway) Thomas is also given the best material to work with and is captivating as we watch him fall from his ivory tower.
There are only two problems with the show that absolutely require further revision if the plan to continue to Broadway remains intact. Unfortunately they are Crow’s score and Levinson’s book. Although giants in their respective arenas, they both show all the inexperience of ambitious grad students in translating their art to the medium of musical theatre, a more and more common problem these days when every pop star wants their own musical.
Crow writes a variety of fun do-wop and mock girl group sounds that are very entertaining songs, and she certainly has a cast ready to have fun with them. But as is typical of the new generation of pop stars (Sting and Cyndi Lauper come to mind) rushing to become composers, they know tunes but have no understanding of how individual songs function as a score. All her songs are tuneful and fun, but they don’t build individually as a proper musical number should, and they don’t advance the plot as much as merely narrate the action or the inner thoughts of the scene. None of the songs save the opening number “What Would You Bet?”, which introduces us to the guys Jersey Boys-style and gives us an initial sense of their world, do much to advance the plot or the characters. As typical of the new breed pop composers, they feel not like a unified score used to tell a story, and even less of a structure on which to build one, but merely a collection of songs forked into scenes. Furthermore, most of Crow’s lyrics are as mundane as her tunes are catchy. But musical theatre is not pop radio. A collaboration with a lyricist possessing experience in stage musicals as well as a new arranger to give her tunes more development and life would enhance her efforts immensely.
Even more unfortunately, Levinson’s scenes don’t give her much with which to work. Perhaps the mistake was allowing him to write the book after writing the classic screenplay that made his career. He seems too married to his original material, scene by scene, word by word. For stage, it is mandatory to streamline that action, make each scene count towards your story, and find a new, fresher rhythm in which to tell the story, musicalizing the plot along the way. Most scenes involving the ladies just slow the action down and could be sacrificed. While they display the most growth, and work in the context of the movie where they can be equal characters with the guys, on stage they are not equals. They are secondary to the Diner guys. The storytelling needs to be more efficient and the emphasis needs to be redistributed proportionally. It appears necessary that a new, more contemporary and stage savvy writer needs to come on board, take the creation, and make it more stage grounded, as the writers of Legally Blonde did with a significantly inferior movie as they turned it into an infinitely superior musical. The old scene/song/scene/song structure of musicals is dead, and today’s book has to work hand in hand with the music to tell the story in a new vital rhythm, even when telling an old, conventional story. Levinson’s rendering, which gave us a classic nostalgic movie, here make us question if any of the leading characters even have complete story arcs worth dramatizing.
Kathleen Marshall’s direction keeps the action moving as briskly and smoothly as Levinson’s book allows, but her award winning choreography is nowhere to be found. Most numbers don’t allow for it, and she definitely benefited from her cast’s performances by favoring actor/singers over dancers, but with that being the case, the piece may also benefit from a director that is more versed in character driven (especially guy character driven) storytelling than she, whose special talent of integrating dance into storytelling goes completely wasted. Perhaps a change of directors at the helm could help refine and refocus the vision of the piece.
This is not to say that Diner should be closed for business, just that it is not New York ready in its present version. The producers understood this once, perhaps they can see the improvements and the directions the show must continue taking as they work it further to get it ready for the savages of Broadway. They tried it in DC, which looks down on Baltimore, and now Delaware, which doesn’t even know Baltimore. Perhaps the answer is obvious: bring the piece to Center Stage in Baltimore for further work, where the movie is as much a part of our cultural history as Hairspray and the heart of the story can be appreciated and honestly appraised and improved. The production team needs to regroup, take a fresh look and find the strengths they’ve created and better ways to accentuate their positives. They just need to close their doors temporarily again, assess and improve their infrastructure, remodel their décor a little, upgrade the menu, maybe add a new head chef, and hopefully reopen new and improved and ready for the all night business.
Book by Barry Levinson, Music & Lyrics by Cheryl Crow
Directed by Kathleen Marshall
Pre-Broadway tryout performed at the Delaware Theatre Company, Wilmington DE, extended through January 3, 2016.
Mark Briner, your blog host, is a veteran performer, director, and costume and set designer who has been involved with Tidewater Players since 2003, debuting as Siegfried and a dozen other characters in Das Barbecü, which also premiered his costume designs in a production where three women and 2 men played 30 comic characters. Over the years, audiences may remember him also as flighty Sir Robin in Spamalot, flashy Baltimore bandstand host Corny Collins in Hairspray, the Union Captain in The Civil War, perpetual bad guy Rooster Hannigan in both productions of Annie, defending champion Chip Tolentino in both productions of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, obnoxious yuppie Glen Guglio in The Wedding Singer, and Cinderella’s philandering Prince in Into the Woods. He has also designed costumes for Tidewater productions of Into the Woods,The Wedding Singer, Annie, Hairspray, Spamalot, Altar Boyz, and our extremely successful final production in the old space, the area premiere of Les Misérables. He also is a accomplished director throughout the Maryland/DC area known for such extravagant productions as Dreamgirls, Chess, Altar Boyz, and the premiere of Catch Me If You Can. He currently serves as secretary for the Tidewater P layers Board of Directors.