Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley

Diner
Delaware Theatre Company
Review by Cameron Kelsall

Also see Cameron's review of A Christmas Carol


Ari Brand, James Thomas, Derek Klena, Ethan Slater, and Noah Weisberg
Originally announced for a spring 2013 Broadway bow, Sheryl Crow and Barry Levinson's musicalization of Levinson's 1982 classic film Diner continues to linger in regional theaters. After its world premiere production last winter at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, it has come to Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington for another tryout. Given the show's pedigree—in addition to Crow and Levinson, the creative team includes Tony winner Kathleen Marshall as director and choreographer, and the cast is populated by up-and-coming Broadway stars—one might wonder why it seems to be having such a hard time making it to New York.

In short: it stinks.

The story itself is comically dated. In the waning days of 1959, Eddie (Ari Brand) prepares to marry his longtime girlfriend Elyse (Tess Soltau)—that is, if she can pass his draconian Baltimore Colts quiz (insert exaggerated eye-roll here). Yet, Eddie seems less interested in his betrothed than his devoted group of friend, whom he joins nightly at the local greasy spoon: the tragic, alcoholic Fenwick (Matthew James Thomas); the small-time gambler Boogie (Derek Klena); the married Shrevie (Noah Weisberg); and the moocher Modell (Ethan Slater). A sixth friend—a sensitive grad student named Billy (Aaron C. Finley)—drops in as the wedding approaches.

At the diner, the boys talk football and rock 'n' roll while slurping coffee and chomping French fries. Meanwhile, the women in their lives struggle against a world that expects little more from them than marriage and motherhood. Elyse so wants to marry Eddie that she prepares day and night for his ridiculous test. Shrevie's wife Beth (Erika Henningsen) longs for a career but worries that work outside the home will hurt her husband's pride. Only the unattached, career-oriented Barbara (Brynn O'Malley) appears on track to live the life she wants—until, of course, a predictable complication is introduced.

Crow's tuneless score commits the cardinal sin of musical theater: the songs do nothing to advance the action. They actually break whatever dramatic tension the actors manage to create in the book scenes. Period specificity is attempted, but the anachronistic lyrics and generic music fall far short. By the time I reached my car, I could barely recall a single melody. Likewise, Levinson's libretto is little more than a rehash of his Oscar-nominated script, yet the cast do not have comedic skills of Steve Gutenberg, Mickey Rourke, or Paul Reiser to make it sing.

Thomas seems particularly lost as Fenwick. Vocally, he is often raspy and out of tune—truthfully, by the time he finished the act one closer, "Ain't Got No Home," I questioned whether musical theater is the appropriate venue for his skill set. Throughout the production, he seems strongly detached from the proceedings. I'm not sure whether or not this is a conscious choice on the parts of Thomas and Marshall, but it doesn't work.

Klena's voice is clarion, and Boogie is set up as the de facto narrator of the piece. Yet Crow and Levinson try to do too much—inevitable, I suppose, in a show with no fewer than six main characters—and Boogie often gets lost in the shuffle. Whenever Klena takes center stage, you wish he had more to do. Weisberg, Finley, Slater, and Brand all bring appealing voices to their roles, but it remains hard to care about any one specific character. These are not people—they are avatars of an era.

The best work comes from O'Malley, who sells the show's best song, a forceful anti-ballad called "Don't." Henningsen has undeniable talent that isn't served by the underwritten, dramatically uninteresting role of Beth. Similarly, Soltau is allowed to do little more than pout and preen. But I suppose little more was expected of American women at the time.

The fine ensemble includes Jaqueline Beatrice Arnold, John E. Brady, Matt Dengler, Anne Horak, Josh Franklin, John Leone, Stephanie, Martignetti, Jonathan Shew, Rachel Stern, and Curtis Wiley. South Jersey theatergoers will recognize Steve Steiner, erstwhile artistic director of the now-defunct Surflight Theatre, in a host of small roles. They work hard and sing well, but in service of what?

Clocking in at nearly three hours, Diner tries to both romanticize and deconstruct a simpler time in the American past. Unfortunately, it fails on both counts.

Diner has been extended through January 3, 2016, at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington, Delaware. Tickets ($34.33-55) can be purchased online at www.delawaretheatre.org, by phone (302-594-1100), or at the box office (Monday-Wednesday, 10-4; Thursday, 10-7; Friday, 10-8; Saturday, 11:30-8; Sunday, 11:30-2).


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