Icky sweet

I guess it should come as no surprise that Pump Boys and Dinettes, the current feel-good musical offering at Theatre Three, was a box-office hit in New York. But I'm perplexed about why it's gotten the critical attention it has.

I am not an elitist. I like to be entertained, and enjoy getting warm shivers up my spine and chill bumps on my arms and legs. But as hard-working and tight as the ensemble performers in this production may be, Pump Boys is essentially a string of cleverly written country & western and rockabilly songs connected by some very loose characterizations--a.k.a. stereotypes--about the men who work in gas stations and the waitresses who love them.

Entertaining? I suppose so, if you don't mind being smothered in cuteness. Transforming? Never.

Don't musicals have to have a plot anymore? Whatever happened to good old conflict and resolution? Or just plain old conflict? I have no time for musicals that are really thematic cabarets. Always...Patsy Cline, the phenomenal hit of T3's last season, suffered from a similar lack of substance. Yet Always was meaty in comparison to Pump Boys.

Pump Boys will endure long after I stop nattering on about its weaknesses, however. That's because the show is a model of wholesome, charming fare--each song dripping with good old-fashioned American values (Fisherman's Prayer, Mamaw, Sisters).

Once again, T3's executive producer and director, Jac Alder, has brought together a smooth, multitalented ensemble, and a few performances stand out. Those casting about for local talent should take a look at Sonny Franks, who plays Jim in Pump Boys. The Mesquite-born actor and musician can be smooth and sweet as a scotch and soda, or as haggard and rueful as the blues he plays on guitar. (Franks was also engaging as Luigi Gaudi in T3's terrific production of Lucky Stiff.)

Michael Justis, who played Harry Witherspoon, the lead performance in Lucky Stiff, offers a strong, if traditional rendering of LM, the gas station owner in Pump Boys. His plaintive singing in "The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine" was almost worth the price of admission.

While the diner waitresses, Rhetta and Prudie Cupp (played by Sally Soldo and Amy Mills, respectively), have energy in abundance, their peripatetic performances are the hillbilly version of NFL cheerleading. Their reason for being is to stand behind their men at the adjacent gas station; they get an enormous amount of pleasure (perhaps too much) from feeding them lemon meringue pie.

Soldo and Mills' roles are demanding in the way a cheerleader's or beauty queen's role might be: they must sing, of course, play the kitchen utensils as if they were drums, tap dance, and smile incessantly--Mills even plays the saxophone with a Clinton mask on. The two place their hands on Rubenesque hips like a waitress could and smooth their aprons obsessively like a waitress should. But ultimately I found Rhetta and Prudie cloying and too damn precious.

Pump Boys and Dinettes was conceived and written by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel, and Jim Wann. Monk and Hard-wick, graduates of Southern Methodist Uni-versity, also collaborated on Oil City Sym-phony. It's a frightening thought that it took six people to collaborate on a musical this bereft of fierceness or heft, a work in which saccharine sentiments are mistaken for heart.

It takes a functional narcissist with occasional delusions of grandeur to have an enduring career as a performance artist. If that person is talented enough, as Fred Curchack undoubtedly is, the thrusting of oneself into the public vortex can be a sensational theatrical event.

Unfortunately, it is those same personality traits that once in a while cause the work to take a dive.

Curchack has created some 50 original theater performances, 15 of them solos. The most renowned performance artist in Dallas and one of our national treasures, he has received international recognition for the two works he performed recently at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary.

I attended What Fools These Mortals Be, his re-visioning of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, a piece Curchack recently performed at the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre.

Curchack begins the show standing behind a scrim in utter darkness. He asks the audience if he should review what Midsummer Night's Dream is about. No one quite says yes or no; after enough muffled murmurs, he proceeds to explain the play as a "cosmic custody battle over a changeling child we never see..." According to Curchack, all the characters "fall in love with the wrong people and run around the forest and live happily ever after."

"Have I missed anything?" he inquires impishly.
"The plot," one heckler responds.
"It's about love, isn't it?" Curchack says, almost admonishingly.

Such moments are funny, moving, and theatrical in only the most elemental way. Whether he is narrating, pondering, free-associating or enacting a complicated, over-rehearsed ritual involving his scrim, flashlight, and puppets, Curchack has a knack for deconstructing and demystifying the theater. He helps us, the audience, understand what it is we love about the art.

Yet I did not love this performance, because too many asides and ad-libs didn't work. His motif of commenting on arts funding, even in character, has become hackneyed. I would like to get through one performance art event for its own sake--without having to get into the politics of it every single time.

For those who know Curchack, it goes without saying that his use of puppets, light, and masks can indeed be magical and transforming. (Who would think one man could play Theseus, Hippolyta, Egeus, Hermia, Demetrius, Helena, Nick Bottom--described as "a weaver and ass-headed amateur actor"--Puck, Fairy, Oberon, and Titania!) The Titania mask is evocatively jeweled, and the lighting effects Curchack creates for her can only be compared to the Emerald City of Oz. He plays Hermia with a classically nasal New York accent, so she repeatedly calls for her love, Lysander, L-i-s-a-n-d-a-h.

Curchack plays the cast of thousands with self-referential humor and an unsurpassed manic energy. But his style is also very Punch and Judy, as his dolls and puppets make love and war on each other, and I easily grow weary of watching inanimate objects slam-dancing.

There are other moments in What Fools These Mortals Be--thankfully less frequent--when he rambles on about arts funding or comments about his age, even loses his train of thought. These excessive ad-libs and improvisations are one misstep away from humor or intrigue. They are the indulgences of a master who loves the stage and loves his art and doesn't know when to turn it off or turn it down. And while I approve of his decision not to allow for intermissions, he must then, in turn, perform as tightly as possible for a tiring audience.