BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Singers in search of good concert material could do worse than checking out Pump Boys and Dinettes, which New American Theater is staging for its debut at the Palladium Theater.
For some reason, this country-fried revue that had success on Broadway in the early 1980s, and was part of a "new country'' music movement at the time (legendary Nashville producer Billy Sherrill produced several tracks on the original cast album), has not been seen in the Tampa Bay area for at least 20 years, if ever.
So kudos to Brian M. Becker, producing artistic director of the new theater company, for having the wit to put on this fun little show and assembling a likable cast. But you have to wonder about his public relations savvy in making a last-minute plea for funding, which didn't exactly inspire confidence in potential ticket buyers. Friday's opening performance drew a sparse turnout of about 50.
Set on a North Carolina blacktop, the musical doesn't have much of a story — Jim (Barry Tarallo), L.M. (Michael Raabe) and the other good old boys from the filling station hang around the Double Cupp Diner, run by sisters Rhetta (Samantha McKinnon Brown) and Prudie (Alison Burns) — and at times the production flirts with cheesiness. But the songs (by the original cast members) are terrific.
Raabe, who plays keyboard and accordion and is musical director, is especially good in the unlikely showstopper, The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine, a ballad about the geeky L.M.'s "first love in country music.'' In a way, it's little more than a corny novelty song, but the sentiment is surprisingly affecting. Burns does a good job of channeling her inner Tammy Wynette in The Best Man, and Brown, more of a Tanya Tucker type, belts out Be Good or Be Gone. Burns and Brown are ravishing on the soulful duet Sisters. Nick White, one of the Pump Boys, crosses Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis in Mona, and the guys' harmonies are great in Fisherman's Prayer.
Becker directed and also received credits for stage manager, scenic artist and costumes. Matthew Beckman's set includes a few nice touches, like hiding the keyboard behind the counter at the garage, and the band gets into a funky Little Feat sort of vibe with the anthem to redneck Florida beach vacations, No Holds Barred.
There was a glitch or two on opening night. "That's the thing about live theater,'' Tarallo improvised when a phone at the gas station rang at the wrong time. The performance would benefit from sharper, more uptempo pacing. Too often, the rudimentary dialogue seems even dumber than it actually is because the cast delivers it too sluggishly. But no matter. Soon enough, another bouncy number comes down the highway to get toes tapping.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.