Los Angeles Theater Review: PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES (Sierra Madre Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on July 24, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles


This invigorating, modest little 1980 musical was nominated for both a Tony and Drama Desk Award for Best Musical in 1982. It may seem commonplace now thanks to John Doyle’s reinterpretation of Sondheim (for one), but this is one of the first musicals where the actors not only sing but also accompany themselves – in this case on guitar, bass, piano, harmonica, accordion and percussive kitchen utensils.

Through a combination of silly dialogue — used more-or-less to introduce the next tune — and country, western, bluegrass and pop music (Jim Wann’s book and songs were co-created with the original NY cast), six performers (and a drummer) take us on an unpretentious journey through their hopes and dreams. Rousing good ol’ boy tunes that celebrate fishing and drinking, and sultry odes to lovers past and present dominate the score, making the wildly popular, good-time revue Pump Boys and Dinettes an escapist, energetic theatrical guilty pleasure. (“Guilty” because during a delightful song, “Tips,” the waitresses come into the house to collect the paper dollars inserted in the programs, and there’s an audience raffle for a car freshener, one scented in “skunk.” Hoo-boy).

The friendly, downhome locale is the Double Cupp Diner, an eatery run by the Cupp sisters (very believable given Jeff G. Rack’s detailed set and McKenzie Eckels’ props). It’s also the favored hangout of the happy-go-lucky pump boys who run a garage next door on Highway 57 and whose philosophy is “Work won’t kill you but worry will.” (Together, the establishments promise: “You can eat and get gas.” Hee-haw.)

The pleasing, diverse, and often infectious songs play like a trip to Mayberry. Under Sean Paxton’s extraordinary music direction, the show features excellent harmonies and fine acoustic sounds. Aside from having eye-candy crooners in the cast, Cori Cable Kidder, Emily Kay Townsend, Mr. Paxton (piano), Michael Butler Murray (guitar), Jimmy Villaflor (guitar), Kevin Tiernan (bass), and Jim Miller (drums) nail every slice of humor, tenderness, and bounce (among the up-beat songs was the swinging “Drinkin’ Shoes,” a country-rock song that includes a breakout tap routine from Ms. Kidder).

Director/choreographer Allison Bibicoff finds the right meld of sentimentality and cheeky humor for the Sierra Madre Playhouse production. She gets this is a delightfully corny show and not Shakespeare; the songs and chitchat come across as spontaneous fun, just like they should. My only qualm is that while four patrons who paid a premium ticket price for the privilege sit in a booth on stage as they munched on pie, it’s unclear who we are. When one of the characters said, “Ain’t this better than the Ahmanson or the Skirball..?” it took us right out of Smyrna, North Carolina, 1972 and put us smack dab in Los Angeles, 2018. A little continuity even in a fluff-ball revue would add a much-needed suspension of disbelief (so would a better wig for Kidder). Still, this astounding cast worked their pecan pies off on a hot, hot summer day just to please whatever we are, and I doubt you’ll find a tighter group in all of L.A. right now.

photos by Gina Long (click on photo to enlarge)

Pump Boys and Dinettes
Sierra Madre Playhouse
87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2:30
ends on July 29, 2018
EXTENDED to August 12, 2018
for tickets, call 626.355.4318
or visit Sierra Madre Playhouse

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