Singing Fuels

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.

She calls it Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, but artistic director Sue Loncar is determined to devote part of every season at her Lower Greenville Avenue venue to golden oldies. The third season at CTD begins in August with Steel Magnolias (first produced onstage in 1987), followed by The Rocky Horror Show (1973) in October. After that, the titles are more deserving of "contemporary" status: A.R. Gurney's 1999 drama Far East in February; The Kathy & Mo Show: Parallel Lives, a late-'90s comedy script by feminist comedians Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney, set for April; and in May, Neil Simon's The Dinner Party, which earned the venerable playwright the worst reviews of his career when it opened on Broadway in 2000. There is one more show to go in CTD's current season, The Dining Room (opening June 25), also by Gurney, who appears to be Loncar's favorite playwright. That one dates back to 1982. (For more info about season tickets and run dates, call 214-828-0094.)

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.)

Theatre Three takes the shortest break of any of the big theaters in town, with barely a month between the final production of this season and the first of next. George M. Cohan's 1913 comedy Seven Keys to Baldpate opens the new season in July. Then comes the area premiere of Charles Busch's recent Broadway hit Tale of the Allergist's Wife, for which several local theaters had been vying for rights. A new comedy called Rounding Third, about Little League coaches, turns up at bat in October. The holiday season show will be You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Lee Blessing's drama Going to St. Ives opens in January. March brings a new comedy called Medicine, Man, about a NASCAR fan and the oddballs in his life. The Stephen Sondheim revue Putting It Together is the finale in June. (Call 214-871-3300.)

WaterTower Theatre in Addison has assembled a lineup heavy on premieres for its next season, starting with the musical revue It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues in October. After that comes the world premiere of WaterTower artistic director Terry Martin's play A Country Life, based on Chekhov's drama Uncle Vanya. As a "holiday extra," WTT will present A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline, a musical tribute to the great country singer starring the aforementioned Jenny Thurman. And watch for Dallas actor Nye Cooper to return to WaterTower's smaller performing space with his one-man romp through the holidays in the David Sedaris comedy The Santaland Diaries. The stage version of the popular romantic film Enchanted April opens, appropriately, in April. Another area premiere, Lisa Loomer's Living Out, about a Latino nanny working for a high-powered woman lawyer, will be staged in May. Cabaret, the Kander-Ebb musical about pre-World War II Berlin that recently enjoyed a long revival run in New York, is scheduled for July-August. (Call 972-450-6232.)