REVIEW: Mill Town Players Sell Hi-Octane Fun in ‘Pump Boys and Dinettes’

photo by Escobar Photography

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

This review is dedicated to my friend Austin Smith.

The Mill Town Players are back this month with one of the company’s finest show this season, “Pump Boys and Dinettes.”

Tidy and succinct, entertaining and emotional, and polished like a chrome hood ornament from a ’57 Chevy, this country rock revue features a brilliantly-tuned cast who double as musicians for an evening of thumping tunes, harmonizing, hijinks, and an ode to all things Southern.

Tucked within another splendid set design (with lighted signs, shop grease and all) by Executive Artistic Director Will Ragland, “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” is neatly split among a gas station and diner on Highway 57 somewhere in Grand Ole Opry country (NC/Tenn.).

The mechanics and gas station attendants (remember the days of “Fill’er up!” and “Can you check my oil and clean the windshield?”) open the show as a concert with the two Austins (Austin Finley in his MTP debut as the leader, Jim, and Austin Smith who plays the underachiever and lady’s man, Jackson) on guitar, David Sims standing quietly in the back on bass, David L. Watson on piano and Kip Brock on the drum kit.

Next door is the Double Cupp diner run by the Cupp sisters Prudie (Kelly Davis in her MTP debut), who never found her true love, and the feisty  Rhetta (played by veteran triple threat Hannah Morton).

Written by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann, and calling themselves by the same moniker, this concoction of all things Southern “Pump Boys and Dinettes” premiered on Broadway in 1982, (Flat Rock Playhouse aside), the show has not been mounted in the Upstate for years.

And that absence gives this country rock revue a quality of freshness and vitality, thanks to a sparkling synced cast, smooth music direction by Josh Morton, and astute pacing by director Reed Halverson. 

While there is no real plot, we do get likeable down-home characters (and not caricatures) and clever, but odd (the astounding “Fisherman’s Prayer”), ditties on subjects that we as bonafide Southerners take for granted: our “Mamaw,” cheese grits “The Menu Song,” good wine (at a filling station?) and even a swig of moonshine, all available on Highway 57.

The boys pick and strum through rhythmic riffs in songs like “Drinkin’ Shoes” and “Pump Boys” and the hootenanny “Catfish,” with Morton and Davis joining in with their improvised percussion instruments available in a diner: pots and pans and wooden spoons.

The ladies have their own sweet moments too with Davis in an inspired lament on the one that got away (“The Best Man”); their heartfelt duet about how they have grown apart since childhood; Morton’s no holds barred “Vacation” where she wooed a receptive audience on Saturday evening all in a capella; and her feisty Loretta Lynn-style attitude in the colorful “Be Good or Be Gone.”

And last, but not by a country mile least, is Pump Boy Mark Spung-Wiles as the super nerdy Allen, who may dress like an accountant, but harbors his own peculiarities.

From a semi-shimmy in “Serve Yourself” – the music has a burlesque beat and sounds like the song from that 1980s commercial for Enjoli “I’m a Woman”  –  to making a “Farmer Tan” sexy,  and his surprise steppin’ number, the lovable Mark Spung-Wiles (“Forever Plaid: Plaid  Tidings”) alone is worth the price of admission. And he has the hots for …hmmm… Dolly Parton. No more spoilers here, but you can check out Mark and the gang yourself in this short – yes, short – musical in Pelzer.

Mark may even check your tires with his red cowboy boots.“Pump Boys and Dinettes” continues through April 14 at the Historic Pelzer Auditorium, 214 Lebby Street in Pelzer. Tickets are only $12, with discounts for seniors, military, and students, and can be purchased online at www.milltownplayers.org, by calling (864) 947-8000, or at the door.

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