WILMINGTON - At first glance, the 1982 movie Diner seems an odd choice for a musical. Writer-director Barry Levinson's cult classic (which launched the careers of Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, and Ellen Barkin) concerns a group of friends navigating the transition to adulthood in 1959 Baltimore.
In the vignette style of the film, nothing happens. Levinson's and composer-lyricist Sheryl Crow's adaptation transforms Diner into a character-driven, slow-burning battle of the sexes that endears in its reflection on the great social divide between 1950s America and today.
As a musical, the large-cast show feels small even in Delaware Theatre Company's 389-seat house (I can't imagine how it might play in a venue that seats 1,000). For the most part, Crow's compositions set the musical style squarely in its era of doo-wop, early R&B and rock, and mellow lounge melodies. Director Kathleen Marshall's choreography includes few choral dance numbers to add physical excitement, and more than one song takes place over phone booths that bookend the stage. Combined, these two choices dampen the visual spectacle and vocal enthusiasm of the tremendous young cast.
The lyrics range from clever couplings in both male-male and male-female duets, such as the cynical appraisal of marriage, "It's Good," to non sequiturs ("love is a red wine . . . from a twisted vine") in too many songs attempting to be solo showstoppers.
Act Two's pair of guitar-driven opening hits find Crow getting into her voice and groove, but they make you wonder why Spring Awakening's 19th-century kids can belt out the alternative rock of 2006 while Crow has confined her 1950s Baltimoreans within their own musical era?
Vocally, Diner's cast dazzles, with Fenwick (Matthew James Thomas) thrilling in the rock anthem "I Got No Home," and the trio of female leads (Erika Henningsen, Brynn O'Malley, and Tess Soltau) belting out melodic if uninspiring numbers that flesh out their gender's perspective, which the film notably lacked.
Through these female voices, Crow's lyrical contributions redeem the storyline, expanding the world of Levinson's memory to create what today appears like an alternative universe. It's hard to imagine (let alone comprehend) an age of one partner for life, single motherhood as a socially fatal choice, or an educated middle-class woman abandoning dreams of professional life to stay home and raise a family.
But as with many musical romantic dramas (the movie included far more comedy), I found myself rooting for everyone to find happiness. In that sense, Diner: The Musical, weaves its tale with the same thread of hope that is reborn anew for each successive generation.
Extended through Jan. 3 at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 E. Water St, Wilmington.
Tickets: $35 and up.
Information: 302-594-1100 or delawaretheatre.org