Home on the Stage

ae1-1JTC dishes up folksy, lighthearted musical revue ‘Pump Boys and Dinettes’

After the intellectual acrobatics of its last offering, Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” the Jewel Theatre Company does something completely different for its new production, “Pump Boys and Dinettes.” It’s all about the music in this lighthearted, country-pop musical revue. The Center Stage theater space is transformed into a roadside diner somewhere along Highway 57 in North Carolina, where a six-man musical combo and two perky waitresses invite the audience in for two fleet hours of songs, dancing, and good times.

The show was conceived by four guys in a restaurant house band in New York City, and a couple of female singers trying to put together a cabaret act. With book, lyrics, and music written collectively by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel, and Jim Wann, “Pump Boys and Dinettes” was first produced for the stage in Greenwich Village in 1981, and transferred to Broadway early in 1982. JTC Artistic Director Julie James has appeared in three different out-of-town productions of the show, and had so much fun, she decided to direct this production for JTC, in which she also co-stars.

James and company set the folksy, down-home tone right off. Even as patrons are still finding their seats, the musicians are milling around on stage, tuning up and joking around, while the waitresses (“dinettes”), in their pink uniforms and paper caps rove up and down the aisles, welcoming everyone in and chatting them up. Ron Gasparinetti’s cozily overstuffed set for the Double Cupp Diner (coffee counter and stools, pink china on the shelves, black and white checkerboard floor, a neon gas pump sign on one side and a “Diner” sign on the other) deftly evokes the kind of homey place we’ve all been to before, where waitresses in beehives call you “Hon.”

ae1-2Fans of JTC’s terrific film noir musical, “Gunmetal Blues,” from last season, will be pleased to know that two of its stars reunite to play the leaders of the Pump Boys band in this show. Christopher Reber (the gumshoe in “Blues”) stars as Jim, the guitar-strumming front man in the diner band. Reber has an easy manner onstage, whether singing a touching solo about grandma (“Mamaw”), or playing back-up, or leading the men in an a cappella paean to fishing.

And Brent Schindele (beloved in “Blues” as lounge singer Buddy Toupee) is back at the piano keys as L.M. Not only does he punctuate the action with various honky-tonk riffs and the occasional Jerry Lee Lewis rockabilly arpeggio, he sings some of the show’s funniest novelty songs—like “Serve Yourself,” with its automotive innuendo (“I may be a retread, but I ain’t no spare”), and the giddy “Farmer Tan.” He even straps on black patent pumps and tap dances with the girls (close-knit choreography in that tiny space provided by another “Blues” alumna, Lee Ann Payne).

The Double Cupp waitresses are the Cupp sisters. Sassy Rhetta (Diana Torres Koss) has a thing going on with Jim; when he misbehaves, she gives him what-for in the rollicking “Be Good or Be Gone.” Fun-loving Prudie (James) is still looking for Mr. Right. James and Koss sing well together; their riotous “Tips” is one of the show’s highlights. (And they will canvass the audience for those gratuities, so be prepared!) Only their “Sisters” duet feels a little off. The song’s refrain about being sisters “but never friends” seems to contradict the obvious affection and camaraderie with which Prudie and Rhetta treat each other onstage all night.

As to the rest of the band, Scott MacDiarmid plays a wicked electric guitar and mandolin as Jackson; he even gets to do a little Elvis impersonating on the solo, “Mona,” about a dream girl who works at the Woolworth’s counter. Eddie (a droll Matt Bohn) on bass, deadpan Boomer (Vince Montre) on guitar, and youthful drummer Slick (Adam Stanton) round out the band. All are accomplished musicians, who contribute cool licks or backup harmonies as needed throughout the evening.

With its good humor and hard-working cast, “Pump Boys and Dinettes” is an ideal prelude to the holiday season, a low-stress entertainment that will keep you smiling. 

The Jewel Theatre Company production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes” plays Thursdays-Sundays through Nov. 24 at Center Stage, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. Call 425-7506 for tickets, or visit Photos: Steve DiBartolomeo

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