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'Pump Boys & Dinettes,' a musical slice of the South

Harking back to the days of the full service gas station and diners where the waitresses poured a bottomless cup of coffee, "Pump Boys & Dinettes" has taken up retro residence at MusicalFare Theatre to open the company's 2018-19 season.

The show debuted in New York in 1982 and has been making the regional theater rounds ever since as a lightweight diversion into musical showmanship. Modest in length (a little over 90 minutes) and in substance (if there is a story there, I couldn't find it), "Pump Boys" plays like a lively visit to a country karaoke bar, with some particularly talented folks stepping up to the mic.

The four multi-instrumental pump boys (Joseph Donohue III, Ryan Kaminski, Jayson Clark and Andrew J. Reimers) work when they feel like it at a rural service station right across Carolina Highway 57 from the Double Cupp Diner, where sisters Prudie and Rhetta (Jaclyn Lisenby Brown and Maria Droz) take extreme pride in their pie. A near total absence of customers leaves all six with plenty of time to sing, dance and work through whatever thoughts are flitting by. Thus, Donohue delivering a bluesy comeuppance to an unknown woman who done him wrong in "Serve Yourself" is followed with little transition by the Dinettes belting out the "Menu Song," singing the praises of their cornbread and cheesy grits.

Brown, a newcomer to Buffalo theater by way of Nashville, has her best moments performing a solo of unrequited love, "The Best Man (I Never Had)," with a flirty defiance. Droz gets her chance to shine in a boisterous "Vacation," which includes the unhappy worker's lament "If only I could do something different somewhere else."

With no solid narrative for the show, you never really know what you're going to hear next, even though director Chris Kelly does what he can to make the connections. I still don't have any idea what inspired pump boy Jim (Kaminsky) to sing a mournful lament about his old "Mamaw." Even more puzzling was the duet "Sister." Rhetta and Prudie seemed to be as close as biscuits and gravy until this number popped up in the middle of Act II, when the women sing that, while they were "the best of sisters," they were never friends. Huh?

The musicianship of Ryan Kaminski, left, Joseph Donohue III, Andrew J. Reimers and Jayson Clark, is a highlight of "Pump Boys & Dinettes." (Photo by Doug Weyand)

Clark is consistent as stoic, reserved Eddie and Reimers finds his comfort level as the handsome, clear-voiced Jackson. With the other two fellows, their combined musicianship is a highlight of the night. At times, however, the instruments overwhelmed the voices, especially when the Dinettes were singing, making it hard to enjoy the wordplay in the lyrics (written by the original cast, who were also the original performers). A few other sound and popping problems also were distracting.

No sound issues interfered with the pump boys' a cappella harmonic rendition of "Fisherman's Prayer," a sweet slow-tempo treat that demonstrated how good the cast could be when it all came together. That showed up again in Rhetta and Prudie's tap number, where they knew how to put the fun in their footwork. It would be good to see more of that timing with a few of the comic lines that came and went with barely a nod -- something that might come as the performers get more relaxed in their roles.

"Pump Boys & Dinettes," with a single, simple set and rockabilly theme, couldn't be more different from MusicalFare's 2017 opener, the splashy "Peter and the Starcatcher." This year MusicalFare is holding off going big until later in the season, which includes the regional premiere of "Ragtime" and a holiday show from Buffalo-born playwright Tom Dudzick, "Christmas Over the Tavern."

Theater Review

"Pump Boys & Dinettes"

2.5 stars (out of 4 stars)

Now-classic cornpone show that pairs fellas at a Southern gas station with pie-slinging waitresses for a musical night of rockabilly, blues and humorous harmony. At MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main St. on the Daemen College campus, through Oct. 7. For tickets, go to musical



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