On those grounds, I went to see Diner at Signature Theatre on Tuesday night. (I normally go there on Sundays, but had some scheduling issues, which will be the subject of another entry.) As I have noted before, I support Signature largely because they produce new musicals, and this was a particularly high profile one since: a) it was based on a very popular movie and b) the score is by Sheryl Crow.
It’s been a lot of years since I saw the movie, but I thought the adaptation was reasonably true to it. The main thing I remembered was, of course, the football quiz which one character (Eddie) requires his fiancée (Elyse) to pass before the wedding. Much of the rest of the movie is a bunch of 20-something guys hanging around a diner bullshitting. There was actually a bit more depth in this version, with more attention to the women. So we learn about the lack of communication between the married couple in the crowd (Shrevie and Beth), as well as the crisis facing Billy who wants to marry career girl, Barbara, who he’s gotten pregnant. There is also a big subplot involving Boogie, who has made a bet he can’t pay off. He’s in trouble with the mob, but we know he’ll get through it, because an older version of him narrates the whole thing (unlike in the movie). That narration is probably the weakest part of the book, being mostly unnecessary.
The key question about musical adaptations is always whether or not the music does anything for the story. In this case, a lot of the music served primarily to remind us that we’re at the end of the 1950’s, with a mix of rock, r&b, and doo wop styles. I thought the most effective songs were the ballads, which did more to illuminate character. "Please Be There," sung by Billy as he tries to reach Barbara on the telephone was particularly memorable. I also want to note "It’s Good," the duet about marriage between Shrevie and Eddie.
What about the performances? In general, I’d say the actors were well-cast. Nova Payton is always excellent, but she didn't have a lot to do in a series of minor parts. (And even most of those minor parts were racially anachronistic for 1959 Baltimore.) Bryan Fenkart showed masterful comic timing as Modell, who takes things too literally and tries to mooch rides all the time. Erika Henningsen was excellent as Beth, expressing the dilemma of women in the 1950’s. And Aaron C. Finley blew me away as Billy.
The sets were done very well, also. The weak link in the show (aside from the unneeded narration) was the choreography. This was much more "movement" than actual "dance." If there is going to be extraneous mood-setting music, there should be extraneous mood-setting dance in something other than a wedding scene.
Overall, I enjoyed this show, but I can’t see it working on Broadway. It needs to be tightened up a bit, but I also think it needs an intimate setting where it matters less that nothing much actually happens.