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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Oct. 31, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Skylight Music Theatre's production of "Pump Boys and Dinettes" fails to satisfy.

Tank is on empty for the boys at this pump


There are two theatrical revues taking place in Milwaukee, both with songs and a limited narrative to carry them.

One is compelling and riveting, the other, which opened this weekend at Skylight Music Theater, is just kind of blah.

One is "Ring of Fire" at the Milwaukee Rep, featuring the music and winding around on the life of Johnny Cash.

The other is "Pump Boys and Dinettes" featuring music written more than 30 years ago and wound loosely around the story of a connected diner and gas station.

If I asked you to name a Johnny Cash song you'd come up with one, or three, or a dozen.

If I asked you to name a song from "Pump Boys," I'd give odds you'd have a hard time coming up with even one.

Therein lies the problem.

If you are going to do a play where music is center stage, it better be something more than pretty good music. You need music that is memorable and singers who can give you chills.

There's not much memorable about the music in "Pump Boys." And while the singers are pretty good, there's not a soaring voice among them, nothing to make you sit up and take notice.

It's highly possible that this chestnut has just outlived any magic it ever had. After all, it enjoyed a long run on Broadway 30 years ago. It's been performed in musical theaters all over the place. But, there's something awfully corny and outdated about the whole thing.

A revival of the musical was slated to open on Broadway with former "American Idol" star Bo Bice in the cast. But producers cancelled the opening last month, partially, they said, because there were so many other plays. Not exactly a huge vote of confidence.

The six musicians/actors who are in the Skylight show all do a nice job, but nothing really creates a spark, save for a brief interlude of imaginative tap dancing and one song by Molly Rhode and Samantha Sostarich.

The two of them are the sisters Cupp who run the dinette. They are connected neighbors to the garage populated by four men: Andrew Crowe, Greg Flattery, Tommy Hahn and Paul Helm.

I will say that one of the few amazing things about this show is the sheer number of instruments that are all well-played by members of the cast. The instruments include: guitar, bass, fiddle, bottle, spoons, cymbals, harmonica, stand-up bass, mandolin, accordion, piano, pots and pans, cowbells, drumsticks on blocks, saxophone, tuba, rolling pin, ukulele and banjo.

But while the versatility is interesting, it all smacks a little bit of a parlor trick, like asking your kid to come downstairs to play the piano and sing for visitors.

One of the biggest problems with this show is that there seems to be no context. They may tell a quick joke or have a short discussion only as a means of setting up an entry to the next song. And almost all the songs are cute and clever ditties that have little or no emotional punch.

A rare and welcome exception is when the lights dim and the music is simple and Rhode and Sostarich sing "Sister"which is a haunting tale of sisters for whom true sisterhood is an elusive myth.

"Our daddy was gone and our mama worked hard
So we acted out dreams in our little backyard
We were cowgirls and pirates and gypsies and queens
But I never knew you."

It was the only moment in the show with the kind of emotional honesty and passion that makes for a great song that has some impact. There are people who will tell you that this musical is about country music, but it's missing all of the grit and almost all of the storytelling that makes country music great,.

The crowd applauded heartily at the end of the show, but as they walked out, I didn't hear a single person whistling or humming a single tune.

"Pump Boys and Dinettes" runs through March 24 at the Skylight Music Theatre. For more information, visit skylightmusictheatre.org.


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