Pump Boys and Dinettes
nytheatre.com review by Eric Pliner
May 11, 2006
If only the producers of this season’s Broadway flop Ring of Fire had consulted with the team behind the amiable and energetic production of Pump Boys and Dinettes currently running at Manhattan Theatre Source. It would’ve made sense: after all, Ring of Fire featured one of the original stars and co-authors of Pump Boys (the fantastic Cass Morgan), and both shows are ensemble-driven, essentially book-less revues of country and country-inspired music. But where Ring was an aimless mess of electronic projections and awkward non-relationships, this revival of Pump Boys and Dinettes is a charming slice of pecan-pie-life: sweet, filling, and satisfyingly performed by an outstanding, multitalented cast in an intimate setting with exquisite attention to detail.
Pump Boys and Dinettes is framed around a simple concept: sisters Rhetta and Prudie Cupp run a down-home diner across the street from a gas station and garage staffed by four slacking attendants. The sextet illuminates aspects of their lives through a series of alternately clever and moving (though never heavy) tunes, with the guys singing and playing all of the instruments and the gals shifting between lead and backup vocals. There’s not really a plot, but that’s okay—the characters are enough, and the details of their stories are peripheral to the details of their personalities and relationships past and present, highlighted in songs about everything from lost love to sunburn to Dolly Parton.
From the audience’s first encounter with the show’s meticulously designed (though uncredited) set, it is evident that the artists behind this production have taken great pains to create an atmospheric experience. The walls are festooned with Americana galore: license plates and NASCAR posters, neon signs and special-of-the-day chalkboards, even an actual RC Cola vending machine! The company wants you to believe that you’ve stopped somewhere off Highway 57, and the environment (both physical and conjured up by performance) is enthralling and convincing. The actors playing the Pump Boys dry their sweat with grease-stained rags; the actresses embodying the Cupp Sisters actually work the refreshment counter (stocked with Pabst Blue Ribbon, more RC, and A&W Root Beer in the bottle!) during intermission. And the light accents sported by the cast (several genuine Southerners among them) smack of authenticity, rather than the over-the-top, Hee Haw impersonations favored by many NYC stage actors.
In fact, this production’s projection of authenticity, despite its inherent cartoon-like tone, is its greatest strength. Franklin Golden employs rich vocals, excellent musicianship (on rhythm guitar), and nice comic timing in his enjoyable and entirely convincing portrayal of regular guy Jim, leader of the Pump Boys. As Eddie, Zeb Holt hardly sings or speaks, but communicates an amusingly strong presence and plays a mean bass. Mitch Rothrock’s Jackson (lead guitar) is the group’s aw-shucks ladies’ man with a dry wit and first-rate voice; “Mona,” his second-act paean to the mall employee object of his affection, is a true highlight. The Pump Boys are rounded out by more-than-triple threat Michael Hicks as the awkward L.M. Hicks is full of surprises, repeatedly wowing the audience with expert piano, accordion, and percussion skills; an impressive voice; charismatic personality; and even some tap dancing. As a group, they’re a genuine-feeling, affable, and tight ensemble, fun to watch and listen to.
Of course, the Pump Boys represent only half the story; as sisters Rhetta and Prudie Cupp, the winsome Amy Heidt and Kate Middleton are a spunky duo, carrying their side of Highway 57 with half the staff but twice the heart. Middleton is a joy to watch, sprinkling the sweet vocals of her countrified show tunes with knowing winks, springy steps, and a light but effective touch. And Heidt is a member of that rare breed of fantastic musical theatre character-actress. In her pink waitress uniform, she’s Linda Lavin, Beth Howland, and Polly Holliday—the three stars of TV's Alice, yes, but also of such Broadway productions as Company and Gypsy—all rolled into one. Together, Heidt and Middleton’s earnest harmonies are a delight, whether they are fronting a song or acting as backup to their male counterparts, and they’re even better when they get to show off skills like a bit of tap dancing or using kitchen utensils as percussion instruments.
This entire world functions beautifully under the slick direction of Laura Standley (with Adam Gerdts). While the addition of a professional choreographer or musical stager might have benefited the production now and then, there is a satisfying smack of inspiration here, spotlighted in the clever, beach-blanket number “Farmer Tan” and the Cupp Sisters’ plea, “Tips.”
The carefully crafted environment of Pump Boys and Dinettes provides inspiration enough, but when filled with such smartly relaxed and talented performers (under the watchful eyes of thoughtful creative staff), the fun is only heightened. A slightly more spacious venue—perhaps one with actual diner tables?—might enhance this production even further, giving the audience some more room to relax alongside the actors. But not too much larger—the intimacy of this smart revival is one of its greatest assets, and the team uses the tiny MTS space brilliantly. Still, I have a hunch this fantastic revival of Pump Boys and Dinettes might be suited to something a bit larger—like a small off-Broadway house with a big, open heart and a nice, clear schedule.