The South is alive in the Geva Theatre Center's "Pump Boys and Dinettes"

The Pump Boys (from left to right): Johnny Kinnaird, Jonathan Spivey, Nathan Dame and Travis Artz. Photo by: Ken Huth

Pump Boys and Dinettes

Who Geva Theatre Center

Where 75 Woodbury Blvd., Rochester, NY

When Through October 13th

Tickets $45 - $56

Review by Nick Reichert

Ya’ll need to see this one! Though the leaves are slowly melting into hues of orange and gold, and musty sweaters are bracing the cold autumn air, the Geva Theatre Center’s opener for their 41st season is a warm blast of southern comfort. Pump Boys and Dinettes is a musical that dives into the sounds and culture of the American South. From the characters, music, performances, technical design to the direction, Pump Boys and Dinettes is as sweet as a peach and as rocking as a honky tonk. The South has found a home in Rochester, NY.

Set along the fictional Highway 57, somewhere between Frog Level and Smyrna, North Carolina, the musical depicts the everyday triumphs and tragedies of four gas station attendants (the Pump Boys) and two diner waitresses (the dinettes). Written primarily by Jim Wann and Mark Hardwick while they were struggling musicians, the musical reflects a working-man’s mentality. The performers play all the instruments while they are singing and dancing just like Wann and Hardwick did when they performed at various bars and theatres. Luckily, the performers not only do the duo's original country and rock-n-roll songs justice, but they perform with such unbridled energy and exuberance that the songs feel like explosions of improvised expression.

The cast of Pump Boys and Dinettes is one of those rare moments in theatre (musical or otherwise) where everyone is a creative supernova. There is not one single weak performance in the show, and each character is their own unique personality and could be found in any small Southern town. Jim (played by Johnny Kinnaird) is the unofficial leader and emcee of the pump boys. Kinnaird is a lovable rascal with a romantic streak. Even though a joy to watch during the fun songs, Kinnaird shines in the song “Mamaw,” an ode to his deceased grandmother, and causes eyes to cloud with tears like a soft summer rain.

The Dinettes (from left to right): Erin Maguire and Farah Alvin. Photo by Ken Huth

Jim’s pump boys crew are three characters that could each have had their own musical. Jackson (played by Travis Artz) is the young-slick that loves going to the mall on payday and hitting on beautiful gals. Artz plays the lead guitar and mandolin in the show, and his guitar picking is as sharp as a switch blade and is reminiscent of a young Brad Paisley. Eddie (played by Nathan Dame, who is also the production's Music Director) is the quiet and charming bass player of the outfit. Even though he has no dialogue, Dame’s Eddie has a charming subtle charisma. And the scene-stealer of the pump boys is L.M. (played by Jonathan Spivey). Spivey, armed with the piano and accordion, is a dynamo of laughter. And his unadulterated love for a certain blonde-bombshell country star fills the house with laughter.

But where would the Pump Boys be without their Dinettes? Farah Alvin and Erin Maguire play Prudie and Rhetta Cupp, the two waitresses that work at the diner attached to the gas station. Alvin and Maguire are a harmonic blessing and sound like a mix between Sara Evans and Reba McEntire. And just like Kinnaird, they get to flex both their wild and vulnerable muscles. “Tips” has the two sing and go into the crowd collecting real wads of cash from the audience for their waitressing services. And “Sister” is a slow-burning ballad about longing for childhood and carefree feelings of yesteryears.

Director Mark Cuddy and his production team have delivered an immensely entertaining night of theatre. The effortless Southern twang and slick transitions of the production are a testament to how much work Cuddy and company have put into this show. The Geva Theatre Center’s Pump Boys and Dinettes is the theatrical equivalent of a tall, cool glass of sweet iced tea: refreshing, tasty and Southern to a fault.