Stage review: 'Pump Boys and Dinettes' offers a seat the Double Cupp Diner
February 9, 2017 12:00 AM
From left, the Pump Boys of CLO Cabaret's "Pump Boys and Dinettes": Justin Bendel, Jon Rholf, David Toole and Luke Steinhauer.
From left, the Cupp sisters of CLO Cabaret's "Pump Boys and Dinettes": Drew Leigh Williams and Erika Strasburg.
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Pump Boys and Dinettes,” the down-home musical about good ol’ folks who work hard and play harder, has pulled into the Cabaret at Theatre Square to serve up a light-hearted slice of rural life.
Somewhere between Frog Level and Smyrna, N.C., you will find a gas station along Highway 57, where Jim, L.M., Jackson and Eddie are more likely to be making music than fixing cars. A quick dart across the highway, and you’re welcome to pull up a seat at the Double Cupp Diner, where pie is the specialty of the house, served up by the Dinettes — sisters Rhetta and Prudie Cupp.
‘Pump Boys and Dinettes’
Where: CLO Cabaret at the Cabaret at Theater Square, Downtown.
When: Through April 15. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays (see pittsburghclo.org for exceptions).
Tickets: $38.75-$59.75; pittsburghclo.org or 412-456-6666.
Jim and Rhetta are having a spat, and Prudie has the hots for L.M., and that’s about it for story in “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” which is more concerned with the music and offers just a snapshot of six people at a specific moment in their lives.
John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann, the original Pump Boys and Dinettes, wrote the songs and book as a vehicle for themselves. A wave of popularity carried the team to Broadway, where they earned a best musical Tony nomination in 1982, against such musical juggernauts as “Dreamgirls,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and winner “Nine.”
The “Pump Boys and Dinettes” songs are country-fried with a little pop on the side, and with titles such as “Be Good or Be Gone” and “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine,” they mostly are served up with a wink and a drawl.
If country isn’t your thing, you can still appreciate the musicianship and charm of the performers.
David Toole’s voice is well-known to local musical-theatergoers, to fans of the rock band Identity X and Penguins fans who have heard him sing the national anthem. Here, he morphs into Jim, a good ol’ boy who likes nothing better than making music and dating Rhetta, except when there’s fishin’ and drinkin’ to be done.
He’s usually seen with a guitar in his hands, playing and joking alongside his buddies. As Jackson, local teaching artist and Point Park University alumnus Jon Rholf is back with the CLO Cabaret after burning up the strings for “Ring of Fire” in 2014. He plays banjo, dobro, harmonica — he’s a one-man band who also fits neatly into a quartet with Mr. Toole, veteran bassist Justin Bendel and Luke Steinhauer on piano.
Mr. Steinhauer, out of Mt. Lebanon and the CLO Mini-Stars, plays L.M., the silent type who lets the piano do the talking and sets Prudie’s heart aflutter. In one of his few vocals, he more than sells the lyric, “Every girl wants a man with a farmer tan,” but it’s at the piano he leaves the big impression — you could easily picture him as Jerry Lee Lewis in Pittsburgh CLO’s upcoming “Million Dollar Quartet.”
The Cupp sisters use everyday diner objects to provide the beat for the boys. Erika Strasburg, a Carnegie Mellon University grad who co-starred with Mr. Rholf in “Ring of Fire,” is the perky sister, while Rhetta — newcomer Drew Leigh Williams — is the fiery one, aiming her indignation at Jim for having stood up her and her boys to instead celebrate the most important day of the year: the day the fishing licenses arrive.
For someone who hasn’t traveled along Highway 57, “Pump Boys and Dinettes” at times seems like a product of the 1980s that hasn’t aged well — just the notion of “pump boys” is anachronistic in a pump-your-own world. Tony Ferrieri’s set design shows a good slice of a diner on one side of a strip of highway, and on the other, an office space for the guys, without a gas pump in sight.
In the second act, the Cupp sisters have consecutive numbers, starting with “Tips” — so funny because it’s so true — then the brooding song “Sister,” about how after sharing so much of their lives, “I pray it’s not true that you’ll never know me.” From there, without further insight, Rhetta gets an out-loud yearning for a “Vacation.” And about that vacation … we know anecdotally that Rhetta has two children, but they seem to be forgotten come vacation time.
Perhaps it’s best not to dig too deep when you’re spending a night with the Pump Boys and Dinettes. Just sit back and enjoy the musical ride with these multitalented, fun-lovin’ folks — there might even be a free air-freshener in it for you.
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960. Twitter: @SEberson_pg.
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