Delaware Theatre Company’s ‘Diner the Musical’ serves up show-stopping songs

     Ari Brand, Matthew James Thomas, Derek Klena, Ethan Slater, and Noah Weisberg. Photo by Matt Urban, Mobius New Media

    Ari Brand, Matthew James Thomas, Derek Klena, Ethan Slater, and Noah Weisberg. Photo by Matt Urban, Mobius New Media

    Barry Levinson’s book, Sheryl Crow’s music and Kathleen Marshall’s direction bring Broadway to Wilmington.

    The screen-to-stage highway is littered with road kill: “9 to 5,” “The Wedding Singer” and “Saturday Night Fever” to name a few.

    But the movies have also handed the American musical theatre some of its biggest successes, namely “Hairspray,” “The Producers” and “Legally Blonde” among others.

    Now “Diner,” Barry Levinson’s 1982 movie about six Baltimore chums savoring the last blissful moments of 1950s adolescence, is getting its turn thanks to Levinson and songwriter/lyricist Sheryl Crow. And judging by Saturday’s opening night performance at the Delaware Theatre Company, the production has all the ingredients for a successful Broadway mount: dazzling dancing, show-stopping songs and a story that’s every bit as entertaining and touching as the original.

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    The more successful adaptations seem to be the ones that depart from the film versions in various and significant ways and Levinson certainly knows what to leave in, what to leave out and what to add.

    As in the film, “Diner the Musical” retains its nostalgic take on a seemingly tranquil period in American society telescoped into a few eventful days at the close of 1959. It faithfully reprises the memorable characters that launched the careers of Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser, Steve Guttenberg, Ellen Barkin, Tim Daly and Daniel Stern.

    The opening scene finds the troupe as sport- and trivia-obsessed as ever, blissfully unaware of the seismic shifts about to rock the world as well as their little corner of it.

    Modell unabashedly mooches food and rides, while Baltimore Colts fanatic Eddie (Ari Brand) predicates his upcoming nuptials on his fiancée Elyse’s ability to pass a rigorous sports quiz. The classic stainless steel diner remains a males-only sanctuary, its bright red neon sign dominating Derek McLane’s functional set.

    But in a welcome change, the tuner gives the ladies their due as the story explores the mysteries of adulthood from the perspectives of both sexes. Levinson also provides a well-sketched Elyse (Tess Soltau), a key character not included in the film. Another nice touch: cool dude Boogie (Derek Klena) who sips in and out of the action setting up the scenes and condemning his friends’ misdeeds as well as his own.

    Crow has crafted an assortment of doo-wop, R&B and good ole’ rock’n’roll melodies that could easily pulsate from a 1950s Wurlitzer jukebox. They are filled with delicious hooks, tasty harmonies and intense lyrics that aggressively advance the story.

    All are brilliantly performed by this talented ensemble. Erika Henningsen brings the house down with”Tear Down This House,” Crow’s power ballad for Beth who is grappling with a disappointing marriage to the clueless Shrevie. The piece is rendered all the more powerful given that it follows the humorous R&B number “It’s Good,” the male take on marriage sung by Shrevie and Eddie.

    Rumblings of the not-too-far-off second wave of feminism can be heard when the women sing “Every Man Needs a Woman” in Act One. “Don’t” conveys Barbara’s (Brynn O’Malley) emotional response to an unplanned pregnancy while “I Can Have It All” shows her determination to live life on her own terms.

    Like the film, the musical version of “Diner” rests on a tight balance between humor and heartbreak. Director Kathleen Marshall’s precise pacing keeps the vignettes moving along quite nicely, inserting plaintive ballads like Billy’s (Aaron C. Finley) “Please Be There” between jauntier numbers like “Now and Then” and “Don’t Give It All Away.”

    Marshall’s choreography is equally fresh and energetic. There’s a scene in the beauty parlor where Beth and Boogie duet in “Darling, It’s You” while customers sit under vintage hair dryers, crossing their legs and flipping pages of magazines to the rhythm of a sax-infused beat. Then there’s the vignette where three wise men liven up a comical scene at a Christmas crèche.

    This “Diner” will keep its doors open in an extended run at the DTC through January 3rd.

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