Theatre Review: “Pump Boys and Dinettes” at Indy Civic

Cast of Pump Boys and Dinettes - photo provided by Indianapolis Civic Theatre

Last Thursday night I drove to the Marian College campus to see “Pump Boys and Dinettes: A Country Western Musical Revue” at the Indianapolis Civic Theatre.

This was the “20th Anniversary & Farewell Engagement.”  The six-member cast (except for one replacement early on) has performed this wholesome, enjoyable show for adults in NINE other productions at various theatres around the state (and even one in another state) during the past two decades.

That fact fascinates me.

I mean, where were you and who were you hanging out with and working with and bonding with in 1989?  Are you still even in touch with them?

Imagine creating something very special together and then going your separate ways… but then coming back together to do it again, and going your separate ways…and then coming back together, and going your separate ways…and then coming back together…again and again and again…

…And each time you’re bringing to life another group of close but imaginary co-workers and friends who have, for the most part, stayed locked in time with their own shared histories while you and the world around you have continued to change.

Wouldn’t that be odd, and yet wonderful?  It would be something beyond taking a show on the road because the end of a tour is usually the end of the road, for that cast, anyway. 

It would be something beyond a family or school reunion, too, because while some of the members have died and are relying on you to bring them there through your memories, many of the other members in this situation are relying on you not only to get them there and love them but to actually give them body and voice.

Wouldn’t that unexpectedly recurring, odd and magical responsibility inform not only your art but your whole life?

I think it would.  And so on Thursday night I loved feeling as if I were sharing, in a small way, the performers’ layers of experience through time of this show’s timeless characters and story-songs.

Local History

In 1989, Bill Hall (director) and Dennis Yount (music director) cast Reid Miller, Karen Frye, Marni Lemons, Kevin Friedly, and Joe Traynor for the Indianapolis premiere of “Pump Boys and Dinettes” at the Indianapolis Civic Theatre, which was then housed at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  Bill Hall and Dennis Yount have since passed away, but they were both remembered by current director Michael J. Lasley in his program notes Thursday night, and I thought I saw a portrait of Bill Hall tucked in among the traffic cones, hub caps, and power tools in the cluttered mechanic shop portion of the very fun set designed by Troy Trinkle with properties by Janet Sutton.

Also from Thursday night’s program, here is a list of where this show with this cast has been produced:

Thursday night was the first time I had seen the show anywhere.  According to the press release that Civic’s Director of Marketing, Ulrike Steinert, sent me, “PB&D originally opened on Broadway at the Princess Theatre on February 4, 1982. The show played for 573 performances garnering nominations for both a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for Best Musical before closing on June 18, 1983.  (It) opened in November 1984 in Chicago where it ran for 1948 shows over 4 ½ years. (It) played at West End in London from 1984 to 1985 in a show starring Kiki Dee as Rhetta Cup.”

(By the way, it was an unexpected treat to meet Ulrike in person at Thursday night’s show.  I had known her only through phone calls and emails until then.)

The Show Itself

The show itself is about four “Pump Boys” (gas station mechanics) who play “pump rock” when they’re not filling gas tanks or talking about some day working on that Winnebago that’s up on blocks out back.  The boss, Jim (Reid Miller), is sweet on a certain waitress when he’s not sweet on someone else and when it’s not fishing season.  L.M. (Dave Newman) is the reluctant ladies’ man behind the piano.  Jackson (Kevin Friedly) is the rebel.  And Eddie (Joe Traynor) is the strong and mostly silent type.  They all play one or more stringed instruments, with L.M. on accordion as well.

The Pump Boys work next door to the Double Cupp Diner, which is run by two sisters, Prudie and Rhetta Cupp, aka the “Dinettes.”  Prudie (Karen Frye) and Rhetta (Marni Lemons) love that there are two men for every woman in their very small town just off Highway 57, although sometimes they wish the men were a little more… desirable.

The six men and women sing songs individually and together – some funny, some poignant – about their lives and their work.  They could be any age, yet they, too, like the cast members, and like all of us, really, mark the timelines of their lives by the experiences they have shared.

Musical high points for me included:

  • Jim (Reid Miller) and the boys singing the hilariously hymn-like “Fisherman’s Prayer.”
  • Prudie (Karen Frye) singing “You’re the Best Man I Never Knew” with such heartfelt regret that it made me remember some of my regrets, too.
  • Rhetta (Marni Lemons) singing the scary-sexy “Be Good or Be Gone” to Jim for even thinking of cheating on her.
  • L.M. (Dave Newman) singing, in two separate songs, about his disdain for the women who throw themselves at him (“Serve Yourself,” he sings, “the pump’s over there”) and his yearning for real woman Dolly Parton.
  • The pretty harmonies on several duets and ensemble songs.
  • The just-right, home-made percussion accompaniment produced by the Dinettes on whatever they found behind their counter: wooden spoon on saucepan and pie plates, fork run over cheese grater, etc. I love that the girls (and I feel certain they know I mean no disrespect when I call them “girls”) played their “instruments” with both skill and enthusiasm.

The Design Elements

I mentioned the fun set already, designed by technical director Troy Trinkle to include the two distinct areas – the gas station and the diner – side-by-side in a harmonious, pleasing way.  Janet Sutton designed the wealth of properties to go with each area – everything from fresh-baked pies (a Double Cupp specialty) to an assortment of working power tools.  Janet Sutton was also the stage manager.

Karen Frye designed the costumes: name-embroidered work shirts and coveralls for the men and perky yet durable red-and-white waitress uniforms for the women.

Director Michael J. Lasley designed and ran the sound, which was high quality and therefore blissfully free of distractions.

I especially admired the lighting design and therefore expected to see Civic’s resident lighting designer, Ryan Koharchik, listed in the program.  I am always surprised and delighted by his work. 

However, Joanne Johnson, who I only “knew” as the stage manager for Civic’s production of “West Side Story” earlier this year, actually designed the lights for this production of “Pump Boys.”  I loved the subtle wit in her lighting choices.  For example, there was a swampy green light in the background for the fishing song, with very small, jagged movements in the white part of the lighting when there was talk of storms…oh, I’m not describing it very well.  One of these days I’m going to take a class on lighting design so that I have some better vocabulary for my reviews!  But anyway, the lighting design throughout the show added to the fun.  Denise Stockdale ran the lights during the show.

More about the Timelessness

There was some impromptu joking directly with the audience about how it is getting harder to do the tap dancing parts and the jumping-and-sliding-with-guitar parts, but it all felt very genuine, very believable for the characters as well as the actors.  If I hadn’t known that everyone first played these roles when they were in their 20s, I wouldn’t have thought twice about the characters being as old as they are now and therefore joking about their physical changes.

And although doing this show may be more challenging now for them physically, Lemons, Newman, and Frye can still tap up a storm and Friedly, especially, can still jump around like the wildest of rock stars.  Everyone is still able to clamber over countertops and slam their instruments around (in a musical way) and dip and shimmy as needed.  (Original staging by Bill Hall.)

I left the theatre feeling inspired.

Speaking of inspiration, I am writing the PB&D’s motto – “Work will not kill you but worry sure will!” – on a sticky note over my computer here in my home office, and on another one over the computer at my day job.

“Pump Boys and Dinettes: A Country Western Musical Revue – 20th Anniversary & Farewell Engagement” only ran three performances as a fundraiser for the Indianapolis Civic Theatre.  It closed, supposedly forever this time, on Saturday, August 8, 2009.

Hope Baugh – and IndyTheatre on Twitter.

PS – Photo above taken by Zach Rosing and provided by the Indianapolis Civic Theatre.  Back row:  Marni Lemons, Dave Newman.  Middle row: Reid Miller, Joe Traynor, Karen Frye.  Front: Kevin Friedly.

5 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “Pump Boys and Dinettes” at Indy Civic”

  1. Hope – Thank you so much for your thoughtful way of stating what I haven’t really acknowledged about what this show has been to me!

    Love review!

    Marni (Rhetta)

  2. You’re welcome, Marni. Thanks for reading, and for doing the show again!

    Zach, I added your name to the photo citation. Thanks for telling me!

  3. Hope,

    Wow. I couldn’t have said it all this well if I had spent a week on it. Thanks for your insight. You certainly hit the nails on the heads, and it made me feel warm all over again.

    Reid Miller

  4. Hi –

    I’m doing some research on how/if power tools have been used onstage during shows. I was wondering if you could tell me whether and how the working power tools were used in this production.


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