By Colin Douglas
If you were to take a leisurely drive down Highway 57 you might end up at a little service station somewhere between Frog Level and Smyrna, North Carolina. Thanks to Scenic Designer Sydney Lynne’s attention to detail, the set fills the entire, wide stage of the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. Adjoining the gas station is the Double Cupp Diner, where two sweet, spunky sisters are whipping up bottomless cups of coffee, pecan and sweet potato pies, and many other southern delicacies. If you pull up a chair you can relish the show’s easy-going menu of country pop/rock songs that celebrate life’s little joys and sorrows—something that everyone can understand and appreciate. In 1982, this refreshing, unassuming little musical, which played both Off- and On-Broadway for well over year, was nominated for both a Tony and Drama Desk Award for Best Musical. The show set a precedent as one of the first musicals where the actors not only sing but also accompany themselves on guitar, bass, piano, and percussive instruments and even kitchen utensils. Through a combination of country, western, bluegrass, gospel and pop music, the six performers take us on an unpretentious journey through their hopes and dreams.
Rousing good ol’ boy tunes that celebrate fishing and drinking, and sultry odes to lovers past and present, dominate the score. Plenty of humorous songs, such as “Serve Yourself” and “Tips” titillate with their double entendres. Yet every so often a song like “Sister” unexpectedly tiptoes in to break your heart with its unaffected honesty. These are the moments you treasure most from this gentle production. Director Daryl D. Brooks, the talented Producing Managing Director of Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater, has tenderly guided this charming production. His southern roots helping with the authenticity of this piece, Brooks shows a deep feeling for the characters and the songs they sing and play. His passion helps make this production special. Multitalented Rueben D. Echoles pulls double-duty as both Choreographer and Designer of the Costumes and Wigs. Another familiar face from the Black Ensemble Theater is gifted musician Robert Reddrick, who serves as the company’s Musical Director.
The cast is as folksy and funny as anyone could hope to meet. Melanie Loren is marvelous as the sweet, sultry Rhetta Cupp. In addition to her duets and group numbers, Ms Loren is delightful in her solo, “Be Good or Be Gone.” As her sister Prudie, Shantel Cribbs absolutely owns the stage with “The Best Man (I Never Had).” Both ladies set the Double Cupp on fire with their sexy rendition of “Tips,” “Vacation,” and then shift gears with the nostalgic “Sisters.” Besides being brilliant singers, these two actresses can also keep the rhythm going on a host of household items and then really dance up a storm. Ian Paul Custer hits all the right notes as Jim, whether leading the Boys in a “Fisherman’s Prayer” or mourning his beloved grandmother’s passing in “Mamaw.” Handsome Billy Rude titillates with his rock-n-roll homage to “Mona,” a stunning Walmart cashier who once won his heart. Rafe Bradford provides fine backup for the company, both on bass and with vocals. But it’s Frederick Harris who almost steals the show as nerdy, honky-tonk keyboarding L.M. His performance of “Serve Yourself” is, alone, worth the price admission; but Harris also charms the audience with “Surf Castin’ Man” (a new song written expressly for this production) and his ode to a certain famous country music star, “T.N.D.P.W.A.M.”
So if you set out on that trip down Highway 57, “Taking It Slow,” the rewards will be plentiful and highly entertaining. You might just go home with a car air freshener, if you happen to win the raffle following intermission. But regardless, this 90-minute musical will be one trip this Fall that you’ll be glad you took. *** Pump Boys & Dinettes runs through December 12th the the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago. For tickets or more information, please visit porchlightmusictheatre.org. Pronoun Key: + (he/him/his); * (she/her/hers); ^ (they, them, theirs). = (any with respect) Photos by Chollette