Saturday, February 4, 2017

CLO Cabaret Now Staging a Countrified Charmer

Justin Bendel, David Toole, Jon Rohlf and Luke Steinhauer Star in "Pump Boys and Dinettes" Credit: Matt Polk
There’s an interesting theatrical juxtaposition now taking place in Downtown Pittsburgh. At opposite ends of the dramatic horizon yet within shouting distance of one another, the productions at the O’Reilly Theater and its neighbor, the CLO Cabaret, couldn’t be more disparate.

Theater audiences can go high-brow at the O’Reilly and brush up on their Shakespeare for a sit-through of the Bard’s "Twelfth Night." Just a short line dance down Penn Avenue, those wanting a fun evening of "lite" entertainment can simply sit back at the Cabaret and enjoy the nearly plotless melenge of musical merrymaking titled "Pump Boys and Dinettes."

After an exhausting week of toil and travail, I went for the latter and a chance to emotionally exfoliate some pent-up angst. It proved an effective remedy.

The origins of Pump Boys go back to pair of musical entertainers who performed country songs at a cowboy-themed Manhattan Restaurant in the 1980s. The show expanded by adding two additional male and two females to the cast, all of which contributed material to the show that eventually opened on Broadway at the Princess Theater on February 4, 1982 and ran for 573 performances.

The string of country, rock-a-billy and Gospel tunes along with an ample story line and sketchy character development was enough the earn it a Drama Desk and Tony Award nomination for "Best Musical." The show has staying power and is performed with enough regularity at regional theaters and smaller venues to earn the original collaborators, in all likelihood, enough royalties to live comfortably.

Set in a small town on Route 57 somewhere between Smyrna and Frog Level, North Carolina (yes there is a town with that name in the Tar Heel state but Route 57 doesn’t run through it), Pump Boys delves into the lives of working class folk who dispense gas and repair cars in a garage adjacent to a café called the Double Cupp. There two hard-working sisters dish out the grub with smiles on their faces and a song in the hearts.

The best thing. the show has going for it is the song writing skills of its originators - John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann. I was so impressed with the show’s line up of 19 toe tapping ditties and lyrical ballads that I wondered aloud why none had become pop music standards.

One story song, T.N.D.P.W.A.M. "The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine," did once  make it to the number 67 slot on the Country Charts, but my personal favorite is a winsome tune titled "Mamaw," a nostalgic look at childhood memories that should be a regular feature come Mother’s Day much the same way that "Here Comes Peter Cottontail" graces the airwaves at Easter.

Drew Leigh Williams and David Toole Credit: Matt Polk
A sextet of young, talented actors double as musicians/singers and are headed by the dynamic David Toole, a vocal firebrand with winning ways and charisma to burn who can be heard locally as the frontman for the Rock/Alternative band "Identity X" and, from time to time, singing the national anthem before a Penguins game.

On keyboard, Luke Steinhauer originally hails from Mt. Lebanon and is making his Cabaret debut as L.M., a crooner who gets to show off his vocal abilities in the aforementioned T.N.D.P.W.A.M and his alluring stage presence in ensemble pieces.

Equally eager to add to the production’s lighthearted rambunctiousness, banjo-plucking Jon Rholf is boyishly bewitching, especially in his second act solo number "Mona." Seemingly content in the underscripted role of Eddie, Justin Bendel adds a large unassuming presence on bass that anchors the musical ensemble with his deep-toned plucking.

Erika Strasburg and Luke Steinhauer Credit: Matt Polk

On the distaff side, Erika Strasburg as Prudie Cupp adds a fresh-as-a-daisy sensibility to her lunch counter duties. With her long blonde hair and porcelain-hued countenance, she’s more valley girl than down-home diner drudge. Early on, Strasburg shows a shy softer side in her songful lament "The Best Man," but later unveils a grittier and more worldly-wise side in "Tips," a song she shares with her sister and café co-worker, Rhetta, played with  unassuming panache by Drew Leigh Williams.

Williams shines in "Be Good or Be Gone," a tune that slams her romantic love interest, Jim, with a forceful, yet understandable ultimatum, and she also proves a noteworthy component in "Dinette duets" with her stage sister as well as in ensemble melodies with the rest of the cast.

Kiesha Lalama’s choreography doesn’t attempt too much in the way of business, a wise choice considering the small space left of after set designer, Tony Ferrieri, fills half the stage with trappings evocative of a garage and the remainder with elements that conjur up a diner.

As director, Benjamin Endsley Klein is strong and thorough, though not as inventive as some of the other work I’ve seen in previous shows at the Cabaret. In retrospect, I was also a bit astonished that the accessible and entertaining musical didn’t have more comedic moments. True, the tune "Tips" did provide a bit of tongue-in-cheek chuckles, and there were other ticklish tidbits scattered here and there, but the real entertainment value of "Pump Boys" lies in its above average compositions and the polished Cabaret cast that performs them.

"Pump Boys and Dinettes" is at the CLO Cabaret at Theater Square, 655 Penn Avenue, in downtown Pittsburgh through April 15. For tickets, phone 412-456-6666 or

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