Set on Highway 57 between Frogs Level and Smyrna, North Carolina, Pump Boys and Dinettes celebrates the sassy self-possession of rural service station employees and diner waitresses everywhere. The show was written by a working band and is performed concert-style, with all the pump boys playing instruments and both dinettes singing. Susie Couch and Tiffany Story are terrific as the dinettes, Prudie and Rhetta Cupp, providing the affectionate backtalk that keeps the pump boys and the audience happy as pie. The pump boys in this production are Sam Warren Spade as the manager, Jim; Jason Bray as the devilish Jackson; Alan Kirk as bespectacled Eddie; Brian Harwell as the strong, silent-type drummer, Bernie; and Joseph Beck as L.M. at the keyboards, which are wonderfully dressed up behind the grill of a cartoonish green automobile.
The action comes almost completely in the songs, which cover a wide spectrum of Americana. There are fewer straight-up country songs than one might expect, and more blues, rock, and Western swing. The dinettes move freely about the stage, flirting with the guys, baking, and even tap dancing in their cute uniforms from Ruby’s Diner and matching curly blonde wigs. The focus of the dinette’s activity is a pair of old-fashioned microphones-the kind the Andrews sisters used. From there, Couch and Story deliver some beautiful harmonies and half a dozen great songs, including one, “Tips,” that sounds almost New Wave at times, which makes sense as the show was written in Manhattan in 1980.
The hardest part about making one of these concert shows work is getting the timing right, and director Aaron Levin has gotten it with this production. There were one or two moments when the pump boys seemed to be hung up on the way to the next transition, but Couch in particular was always at the ready with an ad lib, often addressing the audience in the light, clever manner that is the Circle Bar B house style.
The Cupp sisters share a distinctive look, but they have discernibly different sensibilities. As the rambunctious, flirtatious Rhetta, Story takes the show’s double-entendres as far as she can go, eliciting some alarmed reminders from Prudie that “this is a family show.” When the dinettes finally take out their white kitchen cloths and start the familiar process of cleaning up, the gesture is small but powerful, producing a pang of regret that the whole thing has ended too soon.
In America, the culture of country diners and highway filling stations-however remote it may feel when represented onstage-is rarely more than a few hours’ drive from even the most metropolitan areas. The ambiance at Circle Bar B Ranch itself conjures this red-and-white world of ketchup dispensers, Coca-Cola signs, bright lipstick, and second helpings. With Pump Boys and Dinettes, the ranch has just the right kind of summer show to keep customers coming back for more.