Matthew Reddin

“Pump Boys” a nice pit stop, but still just a pit stop

The country musical has great instrumental performances and stellar harmonizing, but a weak and gimmicky collection of songs.

By - Mar 9th, 2013 12:37 pm
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The musically gifted Pump Boys (from left, Greg Flattery, Tommy Hahn, Paul Helm and Andrew Crowe) perform a collection of country and folk hits. All photos credit Mark Frohna.

When a show starts with a raffle for Christmas tree-, skunk- and old lady-scented air fresheners, you know there’s something … different in store.

And sure enough, Pump Boys and Dinettes is mighty different than the usual fare at Skylight Music Theater. It’s a nostalgic country and folk music concert masquerading as a musical – or is it the other way around? – where your leading men and women are greasy mechanics who’d rather lounge around than fix Uncle Bob’s Winnebago and alluring diner-owners who love tantalizing the boys with a slice of their famous pie.

It doesn’t feel out of place on the Cabot Theater’s stage for a minute, but that’s more to do with the strength of this cast’s performance than the strength of their material. While all the songs in Pump Boys and Dinettes are built using the blueprints of country music from the ‘50s and earlier, not all of them have the stability or longevity of those original foundations.

The sister Dinettes Prudie and Rhetta (Samantha Sostravich, L, and Molly Rhode) are a fitting complement to the Pump Boys.

What Pump Boys and Dinettes does have is charismatic acting and truly gifted playing – for you see, all six of the cast members perform their own backing music. Jim (Greg Flattery), the group’s de facto leader, strums the guitar strings while piano man L.M. (Paul Helm) tickles the ivories – or breaks out his accordion. Eddie (Andrew Crowe) jams on his electric bass while the multitalented Jackson pulls out whatever the occasion needs – guitar, fiddle, harmonica, or saxophone. The girls, Rhetta and Prudie (Molly Rhode and Samantha Sostarich) round off the instrumentation with percussion on tambourine, cymbal, upright bass and kitchen utensils.

Add to that an uncanny sense of harmony (many kudos to stage director Bill Theisen for choosing the singers, and music director Richard Carsey for shaping the sound), and you have a cast that can brighten up even the weakest of musical numbers, and make the good ones truly magnificent.

The closest thing the musical has to a plotline is the romantic interplay between Jim and Rhetta, but it’s always secondary to the songs.

The second act puts those harmonies center stage and (in a move that could be coloring my opinion) has more of a rockabilly/rhythm and blues sound than the first. The results speak for themselves: a killer, straight-up country rock number named “Mona” performed by Crowe, complete with Chuck Berry-esque duck walk; a sultry, groovy duet in honor of the thing the girls love most: “Tips;” and a mini-suite of highway songs as the gang goes on holiday to Florida, including “No Holds Barred,” one of the best ensemble pieces of the night.

Stacking so many of the night’s best songs after “halftime” makes the first act seem like foreplay, in retrospect. It’s saddled with the majority of the play’s gimmicky, look-we-live-in-North-Carolina-ain’t-that-sweet numbers, including “Catfish,” an ode to the boys’ favorite fish that deserves to sink to the bottom of the river itself, and “Serve Yourself,” a tune by Helm that relies heavily on an overdose of physical comedy to offset its lyrical weaknesses. Based on the act’s structure, the knockout solo is supposed to be “Be Good or Be Gone,” but Rhode doesn’t bring the fire needed for the Jim-bashing, shape-up-or-ship-out song to reach its full potential. Instead, Sostarich gets to shine, with “The Best Man,” a ballad in the best country tradition that shows off her elegant voice.

All in all, the show averages out to – well, average. You’ll certainly have a good time at Pump Boys and Dinettes, but the show won’t floor you either. It’s just the best pit stop on the highway – a great place to take a break before heading somewhere else.

Skylight Music Theatre’s Pump Boys and Dinettes will run at the Broadway Theatre Center through March 24. Tickets are $22.50 to $65.50, and can be ordered at (414) 291-7800 or the Skylight box office.

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