By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It's hard not to like a show that raffles off chess pies at intermission. Pump Boys and Dinettes, now playing at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, is its own big sticky slice of American pie. A Broadway hit with its original cast of songwriter-performers in the early 1980s, the revue featuring singing gas station attendants and a pair of comely waitresses lives on in endless revivals in regional and community theaters.
Like Forever Plaid, its cousin in nostalgic musical cornpone, Pump Boys and Dinettes requires a small ensemble of strong singer-actor-musicians. CTD director Doug Miller has snagged two high-octane performers for his little cast: big-voiced Jenny Thurman, memorable as the lead in WaterTower Theatre's Always...Patsy Cline, and theater newcomer Gary Floyd, who already has a devoted following as an attractive young singer and pianist on the local cabaret scene.
Floyd may be the single best reason to plump for a ticket to Pump Boys. His easy comic timing and aw-shucks personality suit the show just fine, but he also has a great voice. And, by golly, the boy can tap-dance, too. He gets to combine all his talents for the cute numbers "Farmer Tan" and "The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine" (watch for Dolly's visage to rise like a full moon over Scott Kirkham's colorful set).
With only a hog's whisker of a plot to get in the way of the music, Pump Boys offers two hours of pickin' and grinnin' through 20 pleasantly generic tunes that hover somewhere between country and bluegrass. The setting is a diner called the Double Cupp, situated beside a tiny gas station off North Carolina's Highway 57. A good ol' boy named Jim (Willy Welch) serves as the narrator and master of ceremonies, jacking up simple, jokey transitions between songs called "Taking It Slow," "Serve Yourself," "Fisherman's Prayer" and "Drinkin' Shoes." Jim's big number is an ode to grandmothers titled "Mamaw" that's as gooey as used Pennzoil.
The guys in the cast double as onstage musicians. Welch strums guitar. Floyd, as a character named L.M. who's something of a reluctant ladies' man, bangs away on an upright piano and plays the squeezebox. John Venable, as Jackson, also plays guitar. As Eddie, Jon R. Kruse is as deadpan as roadkill as he plunks his bass. Young fiddle player Hayden Oliver was a late addition to the cast, but a valuable one. It's hard to imagine this production sounding even half as good without him.
Thurman, as "Dinette" Rhetta Cupp, sings and dances with caffeinated zing alongside her onstage sibling Prudie, played by the bouncy, compact Arianna Movassagh. The latter's breathy voice is no match for the powerful Thurman's, but the two blend nicely on their duet called "Sisters." Thurman's best solo, "Be Good or Be Gone," gives her ample opportunity for the growling, note-bending belting she's so good at. That's not all she shows off either. Her figure-hugging waitress uniform is unbuttoned to reveal plenty of heaving cleavage. For this production, the diner could be renamed the Double-D Cupp.
As live theater, there's nothing sophisticated, subtle or very memorable about Pump Boys and Dinettes. The characters are redneck stereotypes. The humor is strictly groaner level. "Hey, Prudie, you know the difference between Jim and a jackass?" asks Rhetta. "Me neither." But Contemporary Theatre's cast is slick and likable (particularly young Mr. Floyd), and the songs are folksy-sweet. Like that chess pie they hand out in the drawing at intermission, a little taste of this sort of thing is enough to satisfy for a long time.
Dallas Theater Center blends brand new with beloved antiques next season, beginning in September with the regional premiere of the 2003 Pulitzer winner Anna in the Tropics by Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz. That's followed in October by Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. The usual revival of A Christmas Carol runs during the holiday season. Theresa Rebeck's new one-woman comedy Bad Dates opens in January. February brings The Violet Hour, a new time-traveling drama by Richard Greenberg, whose Three Days of Rain recently was staged by the Boaz Unlocked players. DTC's 2004-'05 season ends with the musical My Fair Lady in April. (Call 214-522-8499 for info.)