One-Note Musical

Shallow characters drain fun from Pump Boys and Dinettes at Porthouse.

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Pump Boys and Dinettes country music Branson, Missouri Through June 30 at Blossom Music Center's Porthouse Theatre, 1145 West Steels Corners Road in Cuyahoga Falls, 330-672-2497.
People of a certain age continue to stream down to Branson, Missouri, to watch washed-up, C-list stars croon rehashed country songs. Why? Probably because it's a painless and safely predictable way to be entertained for a little while.

That's also pretty much what Pump Boys and Dinettes (now onstage at Blossom Music Center's Porthouse Theatre) is all about. Written by its original six-person cast, this loose collection of faux-country songs and lame redneck jokes has as much staying power as a rub-on tattoo.

The musical is set on a patch of North Carolina highway, where four mechanics lie about at a gas station. A nearby diner is run by the two Cupp sisters, Prudie and Rhetta. But these one-note rubes would rather sing than grease an axle or whip up a chicken-fried steak. Bereft of plot -- save for a half-hearted romance between one mechanic and a Cupp girl -- the show meanders through a fairly uninspired list of tunes that would never crack the country Top 200.

Even though it's 25 years old and showing signs of rigor mortis, Pump can be a lot of fun when it's performed with energy and some invention. Unfortunately, under the direction of Eric van Baars, this production is a beat slow throughout and telegraphs every move -- never capturing the spontaneity it struggles so hard to achieve.

The pump boy contingent is led by Jim -- played by Chris Blisset, who also doubles as musical director. Blisset fashions a pleasantly off-center, laid-back, good-ol'-boy vibe as he interacts with the audience. But he never builds or varies his character. Also, his singing voice is merely serviceable, never quite capturing the essence of his solo, "Mamaw," turning this supposedly tender reminiscence into a maudlin yawn.

The remaining grease monkeys include dreamer L.M. -- played by Ian Lowe, who pounds the upright competently, but doesn't find all the humor in the potentially show-stopping "The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine." W. James Koeth is more entertaining as lover-boy Jackson and delivers one of the show's funnier lines: "I always go to the Pancake Cottage, where I have a big old Number Two!" They are accompanied by impassive stoner Eddie (Gary Thobaben), who, under a spiky black wig, stands virtually mute behind his bass guitar.

Prudie (the sensitive one) and Rhetta (the slutty one) are played, respectively, by Laura Cook and Laura Beth Wells. Cook professionally handles her singing, bringing real emotion to "The Best Man (I Never Had)." And Wells looks the part of smoldering Rhetta, but she has a narrow bandwidth as a singer, belting "Be Good or Be Gone" only when the notes drop into her wheelhouse. Together, they never create the comic chemistry that would make their relationship or their song "Sisters" resonate.

Still, each character's one note is clearly struck. So if you like a composition with six notes, this may be for you. Besides, it's a lot closer than Branson.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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