Review: Pump Boys and Dinettes Is a Tasty, Slight Snack

Pump Boys and Dinettes isn’t so much a play as it is a collection of songs spun around a concept so thin it’s hardly there. The place is a small town on Highway 57 “somewhere between Frog Level and Smyrna,” and the protagonists are four guys who work at a filling station/car shop and still haven’t managed to fix Uncle Bob’s broken-down Winnebago that’s been there for ages because — as they tell us in song — they’re “Taking It Slow.” They spend much of their time at the nearby Double Cupp, a diner run by lively sisters Prudie and Rhetta Cupp, whose “Menu Song” extols their homemade pecan pie, biscuits, butter beans and corn-cheese grits.

This amiable musical, written in the early 1980s, was nominated for a Tony and has enjoyed a robust performance history ever since, primarily because the original songs (by show creator Jim Wann, with actor-pianist Mark Hardwick) are bouncy, fast and fun, with a rockabilly, country-Western flavor — except for a couple of mildly sweet ballads: one shared by the two sisters, in which they lament never really having known each other (it’s unclear why, since they work together day after day), and one a pump boy’s tribute to his “Mamaw.” At Miners Alley Playhouse, the show has a strong participatory quality: Though there’s no real improvisation with the audience, the actors often address audience members directly, and most seem to know the score — in every sense of the word — as they respond to the music with clapping and to the jokes with warm laughter. The cast encourages dancing during the raucous final number, and though it’s hard to move in those tight rows, almost everyone stands up and jigs, sways and waves their arms in the air.

There’s formidable musicianship, both vocal and instrumental, on the stage. The really thrilling voices belong to Daniel Langhoff — whose Jim is the best-rounded character, both as written and performed, and who also plays rhythm guitar — as well as Margie Lamb as Rhetta and Jacquie Jo Billings as Prudie. Both women are fine singers and do full justice to their solos — the plaintive “The Best Man” (Prudie) and Rhetta’s spunky “Be Good or Be Gone” — and their spirited plea for “Tips”; they also do some nice rhythm work with kitchen tools. There are terrific contributions from Mitch Jervis on guitar, Barry Brown on piano and accordion, Steve Klein on bass and Tag Worley on percussion.

The set, by Kyle Scoggins, is a finely detailed, welcoming wonder that includes a turqoise-rimmed clock, mounted license plates and hubcaps, and light bouncing from myriad surfaces, including barstool rims and napkin dispensers. Vance McKenzie’s lighting is equally bold and bright.

This is a perfect show for a summer night, and I should have enjoyed it far more than I actually did. My primary problem was the sound level: Miners Alley is an intimate venue where you’re never far from the stage no matter where you sit, and every one of the singers has a strong voice. So I don’t understand why director Brenda Billings and musical director Mitch Samu felt the need for amplification — but the singers were miked so high that I often couldn’t gauge vocal quality, and the instruments were so loud that periodically the drums would simply drown out the words of a song. Sometimes — particularly for a slight, sunny piece like this — less is a whole lot more.

Pump Boys and Dinettes, presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through August 23, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044,