After the long pandemic hiatus, Porchlight Music Theatre returns to in-person productions with a feel-good staging of PUMP BOYS & DINETTES. It’s clear that Artistic Director Michael Weber knew that audiences would be craving some classic, lighthearted musical theater sentiment after such a long time away. He was wise to program director Daryl Brooks’s production of this 1983 show as a welcome back.
Created by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann, PUMP BOYS & DINETTES is a quaint and charming musical revue about a fictional gas station and diner along Highway 57 in North Carolina. While the show’s structure and jokes are not sophisticated, Porchlight’s ensemble brings the high energy and humor that we’ve all been missing from live musical theater. In the show, we’re introduced to gas station workers and eponymous pump boys Eddie (Rafe Bradford), Jim (Ian Paul Custer), L.M. (Frederick Harris), and Jackson (Billy Rude). The dinettes refer to the famous Cupp sisters of the Double Cupp Diner: Rhetta (Melanie Loren) and Prudie (Shantel Cribbs). The pump boys also form a four-piece band under the music direction of Robert Reddrick.
PUMP BOYS & DINETTES is the definition of a good time. It’s not at all deep, but it has a driving purpose to charm and entertain viewers. The six performers lean into every moment with authenticity and full emotion, even when the material itself doesn’t totally land. I had never seen PUMP BOYS & DINETTES, and I was intrigued by the inconsistent range of emotional notes. The musical has a great deal of genuine humor and some rollicking, high energy numbers that are powerful showcases for vocalists. It also has a number of jokes that wink at the audience and double entendres that tow an amusing line between innocent and a little bit adult.
Some of the other jokes feel dated and dusty, and the second half of the show introduces some slow ballads that don’t make sense in the context of the generally fast-paced, lighthearted tone. While Loren and Cribbs harmonize beautifully on the duet “Sisters” late in the show, the song’s maudlin sentiment is a too late attempt to introduce character development into a musical that really has none. In fact, PUMP BOYS & DINETTES is most successful because it overall consciously leans into the fun and paints the characters with broad strokes.
The production design mirrors the fact that PUMP BOYS & DINETTES is primarily about having a good time. Sydney Lynne’s set design gives audiences a clear definition of place and has so many delicious details that make up the gas station and the Double Cupp Diner (Pay close attention to an anachronistic celebrity’s photo on the garage door in the back of the stage). Rueben B. Echoles’s costume and wig design reflect the “good ole times” sentiment of the show and has some modern touches too. Denise Karcewski’s lighting design helps bring the energy up and adds dimension to the production’s presentational style.
PUMP BOYS & DINETTES works best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it allows the audience to just have unadulterated fun watching the actors take on their roles. And when they’re given those light-hearted moments to shine, they absolutely do! The performers sound great together, with the pump boys occasionally functioning as a fabulous barbershop quartet. And when all six actors come together to harmonize, that always feels special.
The individual performers have stand-out moments too. Frederick Harris’s L.M. especially comes alive in the second act number “T.N.D.P.W.A.M.” in which he recounts a surprising celebrity encounter. I won’t reveal what that song title acronym stands for so as not to ruin the twist for other PUMP BOYS & DINETTES newbies like myself, but Harris makes the number a powerhouse vocal and comedic feat. Loren showcases her formidable vocal power and admirable range in her solo numbers “Be Good or Be Gone” and “Vacation.” She lends the former a contemporary spin; it feels like she could be warning suitors in 2021 to step up their game or get out of her way. Custer displays his capacity for humor as he leads the “Fisherman’s Prayer.” Jackson’s vocal range sits right in the pocket of Rude’s capabilities, and he makes the most of the song “Mona” about his crush on a Wal-Mart cashier. Bradford has a calming presence as Eddie, but he knows when to lean into the humor with just the right beats. Cribbs and Loren harmonize terrifically on “Tips,” which is a relatable and pointed “I Want” song.
PUMP BOYS & DINETTES is a reminder that Porchlight is a wonderful musical theater house right here in downtown Chicago, and this production delivers on the theatrical joy that I’ve missed for so long. If you’re looking for a good time and to feel that special connection that comes with seeing a live musical, this is the ticket.
Porchlight Music Theatre’s PUMP BOYS & DINETTES runs through December 12 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 North Dearborn. Tickets are $45-$74. Visit PorchlightMusicTheatre.org.
Photo Credit: Chollette
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com