by Jamie Bullins

First of all, I have to admit something. When folks ask what your favorite musical might be, guilty pleasure musical that is, my answer is too quickly Pump Boys and Dinettes. Unusual, right? I have worked on two productions of it throughout my career and was pretty excited, to say the least, that the TADA Theatre was producing it here in Lincoln. Another step toward making this transplanted southerner feel at home.

So, thank you, Bob Rook and TADA, for choosing such a charming and just plain ‘ole fun piece from the expansive canon of musicals out there.

If you’re looking for Phantom of the Opera, Pump Boys and Dinettes is not it. You’ll have to wait for the fall residency of that high-falootin’ story at the Lied. Songs such as “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine” have a much more down home feel than Webber’s “The Music of the Night.”

This is, according to the very enthusiastic lady to my left in the audience a “toe-tapper” all the way through. You’re not wrong, my friend, not one bit. And the rest of the audience seemed to agree.

The intimate space that is home to TADA is a bit of a squeeze, yes, but the theatre artists that work there have it down to a science, it appears.

One of the charms (I could use that word a lot about this production), is the intimate nature of the piece and the place. Very little amplification is needed to get the music and every word of each song out to the audience. That is the primary focus of a musical, correct? Get all those words out clearly to the audience. Thanks to the cast (also the band) and the music direction of Mike Tully.

I won’t provide you with a plot synopsis, because, truthfully, there’s not much of one. The story is a loose framework to highlight the songs and the virtuosity of the performers, basically.

A gas station and diner on Highway 57. Four guys who sometimes work at the station, a couple of gals who make and serve coffee and pie, and off we go. Singing, a little soft shoe, and the fun is on.

The ensemble, as I mentioned before, who is also the band, makes you feel as if by the end of the night, you’ve made six new friends. Not Facebook friends, mind you. Neighbors is a better word. Michael Tully, as Jim (also pulling double duty as the music director), carries the show, the leader of the professional slackers, the Pump Boys. Michael is about as charismatic as one can get. When TADA is ready to put It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman in their season, they won’t have to look far for the title role. Bill Maltas is L.M., Jim’s partner at the keyboard, who is a multi-instrumentalist who picks up an accordion and banjo before it’s all said and done. His “Farmer Tan” is a show stopper, to say the least. Dietrich Hitt’s Jackson sets the tempo, not only with his percussive skills and bright tenor, but a fetching dry wit and sense of timing that brings a smile every time he chimes in. Eddie, Stephen Cantarero, plays his bass with a quiet (literally) virtuosity that certainly does not go unnoticed. Never has a newsboy cap added as much with a jaunty tilt.

Our hard-working sisters next door, Rhetta and Prudie Cupp round out the cast with some tight harmonies and a little bit of soul. Cris Rook, Rhetta, who provides a strong voice and general foundation for the ensemble as a whole, is a performer who helps keep the production moving by adding all those unspoken and often unseen details from the opening number to the curtain call. Watch her and you’ll see. Beth King’s contributions include a sweet comic side-eye, and her voice is a definite highlight of the evening. You could sit and listen to her sing through the phone book.

There are a couple of challenges that the space presents that are only noticed if you are way too familiar with the show. L.M. often plays an upright acoustic piano, not an electronic keyboard , which takes up much less space. Likewise, Eddie plays electric bass here, and often he plays stand-up. I can only imagine those were dictated by the square footage. And there are some additional choreographed tap bits, especially L.M., while he plays accordion, which is pretty darn amazing. That said, if you’re not a crazy Pump Boys fan, you won’t miss those bits and they certainly don’t take away from the quality of the evening in the theatre that TADA offers up here. I only mention them to lead you to a Google search on your own time, if you are a new Pump Boys and Dinettes fan and want to know more about the work and other productions past (and future).

Being relatively new to the Lincoln area, I am continually and pleasantly surprised at the level of talent here in the theatre community. Who knew? (Editor’s note: We did!)

Thanks, TADA Theatre, for inviting me to be a part of your family for the evening. I’m sure I’ll be back.

Go see Pump Boys and Dinettes, especially if it’s after a busy work day filled with emails and more meetings than you can stand. It’ll help remind you of how the simple things can rest your worried mind and what tapping your foot along with the music may mean to your soul. But, get your tickets quickly, 6 out of the remaining 10 performances are already sold out.

If you go: You can catch TADA’s Pump Boys and Dinettes August 8 – 25 with 7:30 pm curtain times Thursday – Saturday and 2:00 pm on Sundays. Reservations are encouraged and can be made online. All performances are at the TADA Theatre, 701 P Street, in Lincoln.

Jamie Bullins is a member of the faculty in the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film at UNL, since the fall of 2017. He is an educator, scenographer, director, and playwright, and has been at it for almost 25 years now.

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