By Kathie Isaac-Luke
For The Union Democrat
If you are looking for a breezy summer escape, then check out Sierra Repertory Theatre’s buoyant production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes.”
This playful and enlivening musical runs through July 27 at the East Sonora theater.
Written by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann, the play opened on Broadway in 1982, where it ran for over a year and garnered a Tony nomination for best musical.
This popular play is returning to SRT for a record fourth time.
Upon entering the theater, viewers’ attention is immediately drawn to the terrific set designed by Randall A. Enlow. Half the set consists of a diner decorated with many interesting details and highlighted with vivid splashes of color. It is an inviting space appointed with stools and a counter laden with tempting treats. There are booths along the side wall, where several lucky audience members get to watch the proceedings as they are served by the actresses.
Adjacent to the diner is a rustic gas station-garage with a rocking chair out front and a display of license plates. Although the play takes place on semi-rural North Carolina Highway 57, the diner and garage could be anywhere on America’s back roads. In fact, the neon sign hanging above the stage would be at home on Route 66.
The play begins in a very naturalistic fashion with the Cupp sisters conversing and leisurely preparing for work in the diner they run. In an assured and energetic performance, Karen Volpe plays Rhetta Cupp, the more assertive of the two sisters. In a bright and equally appealing performance, Ashley Whiting plays Prudie, the more contemplative sister.
One by one, the Pump Boys make their smooth entrances carrying their musical instruments. The five men work in the garage, but are far more interested in planning their next fishing trip, reminiscing or making music. And the wonderful music made by the cast is the heart of this production. The numbers span a variety of genres, including country, rock, pop and rhythm and blues.
Director Brian Swasey has found just the right mix of talent for this polished ensemble piece. All of the actors sing, dance and play their own musical instruments.
All have fine singing voices and wonderful chemistry. Their harmony, both in the musical numbers and in their interactions, is outstanding.
On the drums is Max Harrison Comanse as Bubba. Gary Lynn Floyd, as L.M., plays the piano and accordion. As Eddie, Ralph Krumins plays bass. On rhythm guitar is Ben Williams as Jim, and lead guitarist Paul Wyatt plays Jackson.
Volpe and Whiting enhance the musical numbers by adding percussion with wooden spoons and other kitchen utensils.
This is not a plot-driven play, but is more of an exploration of the affectionate and dynamic relationships between the characters. Through the songs and banter between the characters, we gradually learn their back stories.
Rhett and Jim have an on-again/off-again relationship. Prudie is carrying a secret torch for another of the pump boys. And the reticent L.M. reveals a surprising episode in his past with his inspired song, “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine.”
Some of the many other highlights of this production include the Pump Boys singing the creative “Fisherman’s Prayer” and Williams’ “Mamaw,” a tribute to Jim’s grandmother.
Whiting’s longing rendition of “The Best Man” is remarkable. Also memorable is Wyatt’s “Mona,” in which he pines for a clerk in a local store.
Volpe is outstanding as she lays down the law in the musical number “Be Good or Be Gone.” And the whole cast does an exceptionally fine job in “Vacation,” where they prepare a getaway while Rhetta agrees to give Jim yet another chance.
Rounding out this production’s creative team are musical director Mark Seiver, costume designer Bina Bieker and lighting designer Peter Leibold VI.
Adding to the fun, there is audience participation in the form of a raffle for an auto related prize from the garage. And the Cupp sisters work the audience for “tips,” while singing a song of the same name.
When the song “Closing Time” arrives, you may feel you would like to linger a little longer. “Pump Boys and Dinettes” is like a tall, refreshing drink on a sweltering day.
This charming and invigorating slice of Americana is the perfect summer’s entertainment.
For reservations, call 532-3120 or visit www.sierrarep.org.