“Pump Boys and Dinettes” is now serving customers in Sarasota. Although that may sound like an oddly named franchise, it’s actually a musical at Florida Studio Theatre.
The plot? Somewhere on Highway 57 in South Carolina, the Double Cupp Diner and the Pump Boys Garage share the same building, serving up pies or gasoline, depending on customer demand. This is more than a business: It’s a home to an extended group of friends and family. Sadly, an interstate is coming through that will destroy the station. But the soon-to-be-scattered characters deal with it, each in his or her own way. As Trofimov, the bass player, observers philosophically, “All South Carolina is our combination filling station and dinette.”
No, wait … sorry. I was thinking of “The Cherry Orchard.”
The bass player’s name is actually Eddie. And, on second thought, there’s no interstate. Or plot. Just heaping helpings of good old-time rock ‘n‘ roll with a side order of country.
All kidding aside, the six characters are the garage’s co-owners, Jim (Ben Mackel) and L.M. (Randy Glass); their assistants, the taciturn, unsmiling Eddie (Jamie Mohamdein) and self-effacing Jackson (T. Scott Ross); as well as the two sisters running the dinette portion of the establishment — Rhetta Cupp (Charlynn Carter) and Prudie Cupp (Sarah Hund). But there’s precious little pie-slinging or grease monkeying going on here. This gas station/dinette is equipped with a full array of musical instruments, including a stand-up bass in an old phone booth. And these characters put it all to work.
Jim plays a blistering lead guitar; Jackson is equally smoking on rhythm; stone-faced Eddie plays a mean bass; L.M. tickles the ivories and squeezes a pump organ. The singing sisters play spoons, coffee cans, pots, pans, lids and pretty much everything they can find.
This is basically a revue of original, Southern-fried songs. As noted, there’s no overarching storyline. But each song has a story to tell — and the stories are all told in character.
Jackson is seemingly possessed by Jerry Lee Lewis when he loses his inhibitions (and bow tie) on the raunchy “Mona.” Jim, in turn, channels Elvis in “Drinkin’ Shoes.” (He has an eye for the ladies but also mourns his mother, as we discover in the touching ballad, “Mamaw.”) The ladies have an eye for L.M. — especially Prudie — though L.M. seems unnaturally shy for a piano player. His Dolly Parton fixation (as explained in “The Night Dolly Parton was Almost Mine”) helps explain why. The unrequited Prudie pours out her frustration in the torchy “The Best Man” — as in “the best man I never had.” Jim and Rhetta, meanwhile, are officially an item — although his roving eye leads him astray in pursuit of a, well, catfish, as we discover in the gospel harmonies of “Fisherman’s Prayer.” (Rhetta sets him straight with “Be Good or Be Gone.”) Both sisters wow the audience with the honky-tonk sass of “Tips” — a more than rhetorical demand to the FST audience. At the end, the cast appropriates a recently repaired Winnebago for a much-needed “Vacation” — in Florida but comes back to work in time for “Closing Time.”
What kind of music is this, anyway? Well, as a waitress once said, “We got both kinds — country and Western.” There’s also rockabilly, ballads, blues numbers and Southern rock. No camp, no parody, no patronization, no by-the-numbers rip-offs. The songs are all great — and true to their Southern roots.
That, of course, was the original idea. Whose idea?
This Tony Award-nominated show has a complicated provenance. Credit to its book, lyric and music goes to John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann. Hardwick and Foley started dressing up in gas station jumpsuits and fooling around at the Cattlemen Lounge in New York City. Their routines kept growing. They got fired. Their routines still kept growing — and they eventually hit Broadway in 1982.
The musician/actors do an excellent job honoring what Foley and the rest started. But, this is more than a job — and their excellence is more than technical. We’re talking real chemistry and heart. Jason Edwards (who played Jim in the original 2001 FST production) directs with a sure hand and an unfailing sense of fun. It’s good-time music, folks.
Judging by the hooting and hollering, the opening-night audience had a good time, indeed.
IF YOU GO
“Pump Boys and Dinettes” runs through June 29, at Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre, 1247 First St., Sarasota. Call 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org for more information.