Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Review: PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES Will Win You Over Hook, Line, and Sinker

Cori Cable Kidder and Michael Butler Murray. All photos by Gina Long

One thing’s for sure - country musicals are an awful lot of fun. There aren’t very many of them and, if you can name one at all, it’s most likely The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas or The Robber Bridegroom. But there is another rarely produced gem that is just as enjoyable – Pump Boys and Dinettes - the fun-loving retro revue written by its original cast (John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel, and Jim Wann).

The year is 1972, according to the giant Farrah Fawcett poster on the piano, and the place is Highway 57, between the town of Frog Level (yes, it’s an actual town) and Smyrna, North Carolina. There, the Double Cupp Diner and the Pump Boys’ filling station share a cozy corner of the asphalt just a spittin’ distance apart, and if its hometown hospitality you’re lookin’ for you’ve come to the right place.

Sisters Prudie (Emily Kay Townsend) and Rhetta Cupp (Cori Cable Kidder) run the diner; Jim (Michael Butler Murray) and his buddy L.M. (Sean Paxton) run the garage. The boys also have a band that includes their buddies Jackson (Jimmy Villaflor), Eddie (Kevin Tiernan) and Bobby (Jim Miller), good old boys who don’t take life too seriously. Sometimes they work on cars but mostly they just enjoy taken’ life slow.

They’ll tell you about it too in songs - twenty of them - that reflect the values and goings on of life in a small town, with all its quirks and heart. The music is anything but pretentious and the characters are typical no-nonsense Southerners who aren’t above teasing each other whenever they get the chance.

The ladies know the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach so you’ll always find the coffee hot and the pecan pie fresh. Jim is sweet on Rhetta and Prudie has a thing for L.M., which means a fair amount of flirtatious banter gets thrown back and forth. Jackson is a charmer and Eddie doesn’t say much. They’re all friends, and there is something comforting about a group of pals watching out for each other and telling it like it is.

Cori Cable Kidder and Emily Kay Townsend

Murray introduces the lot and narrates with an easy manner, much like a local tour guide pointing out all the best tidbits only an insider knows. Villaflor is the eye candy of the group, sporting an aw-shucks grin that would melt any woman within fifty yards. L.M. is often cast as a nerd but Paxton plays up his suspicious, silent side so when he gets to “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine” it makes the story even more endearing. Kidder is the “Wynonna” belter and Townsend sings sweetly.

Collectively, they have a good command of the style and personality necessary to make the music come alive and sound best when they don’t oversing. Murray’s “Mamaw” and Kidder and Townsend’s “Sister” are two examples of letting the melody and lyrics do the work for you. In fact, the whole show works best when it doesn’t try too hard.

Great songs like the boys’ acapella “Fisherman’s Prayer” need to lay back so we can hear the barbershop harmonies and “Vacation” turns harsh if the singers start to scream-sing. What makes this show so special is how the story songs connect with the audience.

There are times Allison Bibicoff’s choreography and staging try to make the show a bigger musical presentation than it is organically. Less is more, especially since there is an innocence to the show that gets lost when you “musical theatre-ize” it too much. It’s all about the lyrics and the stories. When you let it be easy, it lands every time, like the final chords in “Closing Time.”

Emily Kay Townsend, Jim Miller, Jimmy Villaflor, Mike Murray,
Cori Cable Kidder, and Sean Paxton

The production design incorporates the ‘70s orange and vinyl touches that make the period authentic. Jeff G. Rack’s set design is a playful roadside double wonder with room for both garage and diner, including half a ‘50s muscle car mid tune-up, onstage booth seating for a few lucky audience members, and a fun Florida vacation insert. He even gives lighting designer Derek Jones room to create an unexpectedly lovely working night sky.

I love this musical and, if you can sit and listen to great story songs all day like I can, you will too. From its fun opening to its hushed final notes, Pump Boys will win you over hook, line and sinker.

Emily Kay Townsend and Sean Paxton with Mike Murray,
Kevin Tiernan, and Jimmy Villaflor

Emily Kay Townsend and Cori Cable Kidder

Jimmy Villaflor, Mike Murray, Cori Cable Kidder and Emily Kay Townsend

Now through August 12, 2018
Sierra Madre Playhouse
87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, CA 91024
Tickets: (626) 355-4318 or
Free parking behind the theater.

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