Pump Boys and Dinettes

Hero_50074In the book “Get-R-Done”, Larry the Cable Guy once quipped: “This is the first book I’ve written since 1975, when I was in the 7th grade and wrote Boogers Are Good Eatin’.” If you took a little bark out of the bite in Larry the Cable Guy’s humor, you’d have Pump Boys & Dinettes: A Music Comedy which is currently playing at CLO Cabaret.

No sooner does the show start with its location setting opening number “Highway 57” (written by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel, and Jim Wann) the audience is transported to a small town, one gas station city somewhere in the middle of the American heartland. The rhythm is very classic rock and roll in mostly four/four time. There are two things that immediately become apparent about the six actors that perform in the show. First, it’s very impressive that the performers were able to play their own instruments, which is a feat that I’ve seen done in Pittsburgh. Second, the two female performers or “the dinettes” played by Drew Leigh Williams and Erika Strasburg had something off in their vocal stylings. Both have lovely voices but the two actresses simply could not blend well with one another.

JUSTIN BENDEL, DAVID TOOLE, JON ROHLF AND LUKE STEINHAUER
JUSTIN BENDEL, DAVID TOOLE, JON ROHLF AND LUKE STEINHAUER

Pump Boys directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein is a strangely homogenized tribute to small towns and rednecks. The staging for Pump Boys is quite spectacular with many small nuances, but I was left wondering if all the detail paid to the stage was really necessary in order to effectively perform the musical. The trouble is, the show isn’t exactly nostalgia because it attempts to be too funny but the musical doesn’t take enough chances with its humor to actually be funny. The songs are polished but forgettable and the segues between numbers are strained.

DREW LEIGH WILLIAMS, ERIKA STRASBURG, DAVID TOOLE AND JON ROHLF
DREW LEIGH WILLIAMS, ERIKA STRASBURG, DAVID TOOLE AND JON ROHLF

For the most part, you can expect to not find a plot in Pump Boys, its ragged storylines has a general emotional thrust but there’s certainly not three act structure. In between the broad, ironic winks at America’s past, the performers search the material for cuteness in ways that often come as cloying. Listening to “Fisherman’s Prayer” which is supposed to be clever because it’s a song about obtaining a fishing license, I found myself thinking of how many other directions the set and actors could have taken. “Drinkin’ Shoes” is turned into a strong Act One closing number but at some point there was a really bright, blinding blue light that got raised. I think accidentally.

Too often, the performers are simply singing into space without any reason for being there, they can all sing and act just fine and often do so in applause-milking ways but I’m the type of reviewer that likes a story. There aren’t personal relationships here, there aren’t thematic developments, and this is all well and fine if you like something light as you eat dinner and sip on a cocktail but I’ve always come to the theater to be moved.

Pump Boys and Dinettes runs at the CLO Cabaret through April 15th. For tickets and more information, click here. Special thanks to the Pittsburgh CLO for complimentary press tickets.

Photos by Matt Polk