Theater review: ‘Pump Boys and Dinettes’

For a long, long time, I’ve been a closet fan of a little show called Pump Boys and Dinettes.

It’s not even a musical, really – just a little, mostly plotless musical revue set in a gas station and adjoining diner somewhere in a North Carolina/Tennessee/Georgia kind of place. (Try placing it on a map. You can’t.) But the humor is plentiful, and the country/bluegrassy music is so catchy that you find yourself wishing for a country/bluegrassy home you maybe never had.

And that’s the catch with Pump Boys and Dinettes, and the reason you seldom see it: The actors have to play their own instruments, from piano, guitar and bass to accordion, harmonica and mandolin. If you think you can cast that from your average group of actors, well, as my mother says, you’ve got another think coming.

Which is all the more reason why Winter Park Playhouse’s production of Pump Boys is such a swell surprise. The folks who’ve been recruited for this show, most of them new to the Playhouse, know their way around their instruments. Even better, they’re charming, they’re funny, and they seem to be having a grand old time.

The premise in Pump Boys is that a couple of guys named Jim (Joshua Alan Eleazer, on guitar) and L.M. (musical director Chris Leavy, on piano) run a gas station, with some help from Jackson (Ken Tibeau, on guitar and mandolin) and the nearly silent Eddie (Rick Richolson, on bass). Next door is the Double Cupp Diner, presided over by a pair of sisters, Prudie (Heather Alexander) and Rhetta Cupp (Candace Neal).

Nothing much happens: The guys talk about working on Uncle Bob’s Winnebago and take a fishing trip, and the girls tempt onlookers with their freshly baked pies. It’s all an excuse for some music – hymns to hard work and avoiding hard work, tributes to lost loves and drinking.

At the Playhouse, director Roy Alan has taken Pump Boys’ laid-back quality and run with it: This show is charming precisely because it has no pretensions, because nobody comes on too strong and every touch is light. Take the genial way the women sing the “Menu Song” without hitting you over the head with it, or the perfect a cappella with which the men deliver “Fisherman’s Prayer.” Even when the show puts on steam (Neal’s smoky “Vacation,” Tibeau’s rocking “Mona”), the attitude is carefree, as if to remind you this is all just a lark.

The guys do play the hell out of those instruments, though; the singing is terrific, and most everybody has plenty of personality: Just watch them tap during “Drinking Shoes” (I’m impressed that Leavy can tap in Keds), or catch Tibeau as he downs a beer, grins and lets out an unscripted “I love this show.” I suspect they all do, and that’s why this Pump Boys works so well. You try singing about fresh-baked pies, and see if you don’t have a sweet time too.

‘Pump Boys and Dinettes’

What: Winter Park Playhouse production of John Foley-Mark Hardwick-Debra Monk-Carr Morgan-John Schimmel-Jim Wann musical.
Where: Winter Park Playhouse, 711-C Orange Ave., Winter Park.
When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 pm. Saturdays and Sundays, through Nov. 7 (also, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4).
Cost: $26 and $35 general, $26 and $33 seniors, $20 students and entertainment-industry professionals.
Call: 407-645-0145.
Online: Winterparkplayhouse.org.

Photo, from left: Chris Leavy, Heather Alexander, Joshua Alan Eleazer, Candace Neal and Ken Tibeau. Not pictured: Rick Richolson. Photo by Jim Berkley/Winter Park Playhouse.

One response to “Theater review: ‘Pump Boys and Dinettes’

  1. I COMPLETELY agree! Great show, great cast, great time!