Pump Boys & Dinettes One Surprise After Another


I loved Pump Boys & Dinettes and I'm not even sure what it is! It's got characters in costume but it's not a play. It's got 21 songs in a show that's only about 90 minutes long but it's not a musical in the customary sense. It's an American classic that was nominated for a Tony but I don't think most people have ever even heard of it.

In fact it's kind of hard to explain. I don't think there's ever been anything quite like it. In researching the show on the Net I found more than 2,500 pages about it including one that offers an excellent explanation of how this unique show came about.

It's a kind of musical revue "in character." Stage right (the audience's left) there's what's supposed to be a filling station. That's where the pump boys hang out. There's Jim (Steve Steiner), L.M. (Jeffrey Biering), Jackson (David Jones) and twins Eddie (Jonathon McElroy) and Freddie (Zach Jones). They all sing and play musical instruments.

Across the street (the other side of the stage) is the Double Cup Diner where you'll find the lovely Cupp sisters, Prudie (Erin Esposito) and Rhetta (Jennifer Neuland) pouring the coffee and serving up pies. And singing. And dancing. They're the dinettes.

The songs are great, the dancing is great, the sets are great, the lighting is great, the costumes are great and the acting is great. The only thing missing is a plot, a story of some sort. And we don't miss it at all.

The gas station and diner are out on Highway 57, "someplace between Frog Level and Smyrna" in the rural South. Before the show begins the cast mills around on stage as if going about their day and they segue into the show almost seamlessly. Steve Steiner as Jim acts as a kind of emcee for an evening of country, bluegrass, and blues music. Before I saw the show I thought you'd have to be a fan of that kind of music to enjoy the show but I was wrong. The songs are so witty and amusing--and presented with such imagination--that they transcend their genre.

The songs almost tell a story but their true allegiance is to just having a good time. What do dinettes want most of all? Tips! So they sing an anthem to them in the second act that's silly and fun, like most of the songs are. Occasionally there's an unexpectedly touching song like Jim's tribute to the good times he had with his grandma in "Mamaw."

The show itself is surprising but the biggest surprises were what I learned about the cast. I knew Steve Steiner could sing but I didn't know he plays guitar and steel guitar. I knew Jeffrey Biering was a fine actor but I didn't know he could play piano, accordion and flute. I knew Erin Esposito can sing but I didn't know she is an accomplished tap dancer too. And I had never heard of Jennifer Neuland but she positively vibrated with energy and enthusiasm.

I feel I've failed to convey just what a weird and wonderful little world this play creates but let me try to explain its effect. I went with two friends. We were all tired and a little down from a couple of difficult days. As we walked to the car after the show we were smiling ear-to-ear and we all agreed that Pump Boys & Dinettes wasn't merely entertaining but that it was actually mood-altering. It had snapped us out of our funk completely. When was the last time a play did that for you?

The show played to a very small house. I estimate only a fifth to a quarter of the seats were filled. A tiny audience like that can really sap the enthusiasm of a cast. But it seemed to have the opposite effect. I felt like we were getting four or five times the energy from the cast than we normally would. The interaction and mutual delight were palpable. It felt like the audience and the cast were in on a private joke. But I'm sure the feeling will still be there when this production plays to the full house it deserves.

This play pretty much marks the end of the Surflight's season. Next week's The Gin Game has only two cast members. And then we have to wait until December for Miracle on 34th Street. Pump Boys & Dinettes is a fitting swan song for the 2002 season.

This weekend as many as 20,000 people will crowd into Beach Haven for the annual Chowderfest. If you're coming down to sample the broth, be sure to stop in at the Double Cup for a cup of coffee and a slice of pie. You'll be glad you did.

Evening performances run through October 6, 2002 at 8:00 p.m.