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Pump Boys and Dinettes – Theatre Review: The Palms Theatre, Mesa

New pump poster

Before it was the name of a musical, Pump Boys and Dinettes was a band.  More specifically, it was a performance group that evolved in the early eighties beginning with a two-man act at a restaurant in New York.

The four guys and two girls who developed the project together wrote the book, wrote the music and basically directed themselves.  They then opened their show in an intimate west side theatre, grew in popularity and moved the production to Greenwich Village.  By 1982, the Pump Boys and Dinettes, all six of them, opened on Broadway. Here’s what’s important.

With the exception of the Florida beach front locale that opened up the set for a couple of songs in the second half and a cast of seven instead of six, what you’ll see at The Palms Theatre in Mesa is pretty much what those New Yorkers saw.  And even though the piece is now over thirty years old, when you think about it, because of its musical style, its setting, and its warm, simple humor, this is one show that may never really date; at least, not for a few more decades.

 New pump 1

The setting is simple.  Somewhere in North Carolina between that grand metropolis of Frog Level and the equally legendary Smyrna along Highway 57 there’s an auto body shop where four good ol’ boys hang out all day.  There’s little evidence that those boys can use a tool but they can sure hammer a tune on guitars, drums and a piano.  “Work gives you something to look forward to,” states one of the boys, “Like no more work.”  On the other side of the highway there’s the Double Cupp Diner run by waitresses Prudie and Rhetta Cupp.  You won’t see many customers after the breakfast rush, but those sisters are sure proud of their coffee and their pies.  As the handwritten sign says: No Parking Unless You Pie.  After all, where else can you eat and get gas?

Based on the original set design, Rob Watson has effectively split the Palm Theatre stage in two.  On one side is the gas station, the other, the diner, and down the middle, with a false perspective running out towards a never-ending horizon, is Highway 57.  And it’s all nicely lit by Michael Haslanger whose lighting design changes from song to song, creating a different warming, atmospheric color to the proceedings depending on the tempo and the subject of the song.

 Pump 3

Pump Boys and Dinettes isn’t exactly a musical play, there’s no plot; it’s more a country flavored revue where four guys and two gals innocently flirt, exchange friendly punch lines and sing songs that tell stories.  The music is the kind that country radio used to play in the eighties as it transitioned its format from the traditional to the country/pop/rock of today.  Pump Boys is somewhere in the middle with just the tiniest dash of theatre.

Director David Simmons, himself an accomplished singer and musician – he looked as though he was having a ball as The Big Bopper in an earlier production of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story – ably guides the seven roadside characters as they go through the musical motions of their day before hitting the road for Florida.  True, in a revue like Pump Boys, as long as the cast can sing and play those instruments – which this cast does tremendously well – the director’s job is halfway done, but Simmons keeps the characters constantly on the move as they call to each other across the highway, huddle for a group song – Fisherman’s Prayer is particularly effective – clog under the guidance of Lauran Stanis, bang a percussive beat on wheels and hubcaps – the kind of thing that Stomp built a whole show around – and for a moment become creatively dreamy when L.M (Danny Karapetian – the L.M. stands for Love Machine) sings of The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine while an imaginary Dolly sits at a diner table with her back to the audience.

 Pump 2

In a show where all characters are on stage all the time there’s a tendency to fix your eyes on a favorite. The five boys, Matt Drui, Alex Mack, John Thomas Hays, Rob Watson and Danny Karapetian sing and play well together, often alternating instruments depending on who is doing the solo, but it’s the two dinettes that add the real color and sound.  Both Caitlin Newman as Prudie and Kira Galindo as Rhetta practically open their arms to the audience and invite everyone in the moment they enter the stage, and, yes, as shown in the song Vacation where Rhetta takes the lead and tells all that she needs to get away, these ladies can really sing.

In truth, Pump Boys and Dinettes is hardly great theatre, but with seven truly likeable performers who get it right, a first half that runs forty-five minutes and a second that runs no more than thirty, no one outstays their welcome.  Plus, for the audience of a buffet style dinner theater setting like The Palms, the musical revue is perfect for the menu.  And you never know, if you’re lucky enough, during the intermission, you may even be the winner of a $3 designer air-freshener that you can hang in your vee-hickle, your tractor or your outhouse.  Beat that for value.

 For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for The Palms Theatre website.

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