Lightweight musical revues generally have short lives, but "Pump Boys and Dinettes" has proved surprisingly hardy. First produced in the early 1980's as the off-est of Off Broadway shows, it eventually moved to the Big Street and ran for a year and a half. Thirty years later it is still going strong. Geva put on the show when it was new, in the early 80's, and now it is back. It has no updating that I could notice, but it doesn't need it. Modest it is, but "Pump Boys" is a born crowd-pleaser with a classic feel to it.
"Pump Boys and Dinettes" was originally written and performed by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel, and Jim Wann, who went on to various kinds of fame (Monk is a Tony- and Emmy-winning actress, and Morgan starred in Broadway's "Memphis"). It takes place at a combination garage and diner on Highway 57, "somewhere between Frog Level and Smyrna," staffed by six singin' and dancin' employees (and apparently no customers — which leaves the employees plenty of time for singin' and dancin'). The Pump Boys work in the garage and gas station, the Dinettes in the Double Cupp diner.
The show has no book to speak of — the closest thing is a running gag about a Winnebago on wheels, presented, like most of the rest of the dialogue, by a Pump Boy named Jim (here played by Johnny Kinnaird). The humor is pleasant if sitcommy; one of the biggest laughs invokes the old "eat here and get gas" line, which gives you the general idea. Each character gets a musical vignette or two, and they join forces to go on an impulsive road trip to Florida. After that, the show doesn't so much end as stop, though there is a nice "closing up" bit for the cast at the very end.
Mostly the evening is about music, a string of country- and blues-inspired songs. These are better than you might expect, and I'm sure they're the reason for the show's long life. The lively music owes more to Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry than to Kenny Rogers. The lyrics are well crafted and often have a satirical edge, referencing such down-home concerns as farmer tans, Woolworth's cashiers, Dolly Parton, cars, and cornbread with a sense of humor and a double entendre here and there.
There are a couple of touching, heartfelt songs that seem to come out of nowhere: one character's tribute to his Memaw (his grandma, to those above the Mason-Dixon Line), and the two waitresses' song about being sisters who have never really known each other. They add a bit of depth to the proceedings, though the show's characters are so thinly drawn that the emotions are less powerful than they might be in a book musical.
Director Mark Cuddy opens this show up a bit, mostly by giving it a comfy home on a large and wonderfully detailed set designed by Vicki Smith. This is an eyeful, from the row of beer bottles on top to the rotary-dial phone in the garage and the push-button cash register in the diner. The choreography is pretty basic — lots of variations on line dancing and boot scootin' — but the cast is always on the move. The show is pretty short to begin with, and seems even shorter when performed with such energy.
It's a tribute to the cast that you don't spend more time checking out the details on the set. Showbiz used to refer to "triple threats" — performers who are excellent actors, singers, and dancers. I guess Geva's cast consists of quadruple threats, since they do all the above and play instruments. (And their singing includes some really beautiful a capella harmonies.) The men all double as the show's band; besides the amiable Johnny Kinnaird, who plays rhythm guitar, they include Travis Artz as Jackson (lead guitar and mandolin), Nathan Dame as Eddie (bass guitar and string bass), and Jonathan Spivey as the manager L.M. (who handily has a piano in his office; he also plays the accordion).
Farah Alvin and Erin Maguire complete the cast as Prudie and Rhetta Cupp, the sisters who run the diner. These ladies' voices combine in laser-like harmony, and they come into their own in Act 2 with the "Sisters" duet mentioned above, and a raucous bid for "Tips" that brings them into the audience (who responded generously with their dollar bills when I saw the show).
There's a high-minded essay in the Geva program that drops names like Steinbeck, Kerouac, Walt Whitman, and other American bards of the open road — names the characters in the show would probably never recognize. It does give "Pump Boys and Dinettes" a genuine if modest place in American culture, and the knowledge that places like the Double Cupp are pretty much gone forever gives the show a nice grace note of emotion.
If, theatrically speaking, "Pump Boys and Dinettes" is not exactly a square meal, it is tasty, likeable, and couldn't be better presented. The audience at the matinee I attended ate it up like a blue-plate special with pie on the side. Speaking of pie, how many musicals offer you pie at intermission, not to mention a chance to win a car air freshener?