First Nighter: The Musicals <i>Pump Boys and Dinettes</i> and <i>The Gig</i>

Yes. Absolutely. No question. If you can get to City Center anytime through this weekend to see, which is the third and last of Encores! Off-Center summer series, go. It's way too entertaining to pass up.
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Yes. Absolutely. No question. If you can get to City Center anytime through this weekend to see Pump Boys and Dinettes, which is the third and last of Encores! Off-Center summer series, go. It's way too entertaining to pass up.

All you need to know before hurrying out to get tix or purchasing them online is that what you'll be attending is not a musical in terms with which you're most familiar--something that has a libretto and a score. Instead, it's a country song cycle. It's a series of songs, some with brief introductions and some without.

That's what it was in 1981 when Jim Wann, John Foley, Mark Hardwick, John Schimmel, Debra Monk and Cass Morgan wrote it and starred in it off-Broadway and on-. And that's what it is now when Hunter Foster, Randy Redd, Jordan Dean, Katie Thompson, Marnie Parris, Lorenzo Wolff and Austin Moorhead as an additional guitarist are slapping it into lively life.

It all takes place at The Double Cupp, a roadside gas station and diner somewhere on Highway 57, where, as they tell you, you can get food and gas. Or just food or just gas. The food part is run by the Cupp sisters, Rhetta (Thompson) and Prudie (Parris) and the station part by the others.

For the purposes of the show, they're all together on Donyale Werle's cluttered set with a Schaefer Beer sign in neon as only one of the authenticating appointments. They're wearing Clint Ramos's costumes, which look as if they could have been purchased at an Urban Outfitters or restaurant supply store.

As boisterous rural types, they chant songs about just anything that crosses their minds when they're not working on a nearby Winnebago up on blocks or are proudly baking pies. They tribute Highway 57, natch, and catfish ready to be cooked. They warble about a beloved grandma, the menu, the delight in tips, awkward love, boots you put on for drinking sprees and, in maybe the most memorable image of the short evening, a farmer's tan (brown arms and neck, white chest) and its sex appeal.

Everyone in attendance will have his or her favorite ditty. The one that got my toes to tapping (not in boots) is "No Holds Barred," which has something to do with a Florida vacation. Wann and Morgan wrote that one, but it was Wann who did most of the tunesmithing by himself or with one, two or a few of the others. Morgan and Monk wrote the "Menu Song."

(Raise your hand if you remember Monk enunciating the word "barbecue" on the original production's much-aired television commercial.)

Lear deBessonet, who nowadays can be counted on to inject excitement into anything she takes on, directs the cast, and they're all brimming with talent and enthusiasm. Whereas the men play instruments, Thompson and Parris use any handy pot or pan or anything else available to percussive effect.

No reason to single out any of them as a scene-stealer. Each has strengths. Thompson and Parris have voices that could get them hefty Nashville contracts. Jordan and Wolff aren't only proficient musicians but know how to get humor into their vigorous strumming. Redd offers honky-tonk piano that's so Jerry Lee Lewis you wish he'd bring out a CD. Then there's his accordion stretching. By now, theater audiences know the breadth of Foster's stage abilities, not a one scanted here.

(FYI: Foster and Cass Morgan recently worked together in The Bridges of Madison County. Redd was a member of the chorus in the one-night Off-Center presentation of Randy Newman's Faust.)

So the standard Encores! question: Will this one transfer to a house on or off Broadway? It deserves to.


While we're on that subject, here's something else that spectacularly deserves a move. It's The Gig for which Douglas J. Cohen has written music, lyrics and book to help distinguish the New York Music Festival showcasing at PTC Performance Space.

Good as The Gig--adapted from Frank D. Gilroy's movie of the same title--is, it's never had a legitimate New York City production. Odd, since though it's been collecting awards for some 20 years or so. What?! Huh?! Something this outstanding has never been produced in Manhattan?! Guess that's just point at another of the myriad inexplicable show-biz vagaries.

The extremely moving story concerns six men in their forties and fifties who've gotten together on Wednesday nights for years to jam (the actors here only mime their instruments) and who suddenly land a two-week stint at a downscale Catskills resort.

Aside from their weekly jazz-oriented get-togethers, the men aren't necessarily close. Their differences are brought out during the fortnight when they mesh and/or clash with each other and with the Paradise Hotel owner, two waitresses and an African-American bass player added to their number when the usual bassist has to drop out for medical reasons.

What Gilroy and Cohen want to explore is the male mid-life crisis, male bonding and the importance of music to the soul. Building on Gilroy's material, Cohen brings an enormous amount of heart to his show. While most of the songs have the swing and the zing of jazz--Jonathan Smith is the musical director and Michael Gibson the orchestrator--the beautifully crafted tunes also throb with emotion.

The actors are Stephen Berger, Larry Cahn, Doug Eskew, Kate Fahrner, Nick Gaswirth, Michael Minarik, Kevin Pariseau, Dee Roscioli, Steve Routman, Bruce Sabath and Donna Vivino as a temperamental singer with whom the men have to tangle to their dismay. Cohen takes care that each of them gets the chance to shine individually.

Again, you wouldn't want to choose a first among equals, but you would want to thank director Igor Goldin for how he's meshed all elements on Josh Zangen's spare set and in Ryan J. Moller's costumes under Cory Pattak's lights. Theatergoers who follow these things will know that Goldin directed Yank! at the York a few years back and was supposed to take on the same chore when the top-notch musical moved to Broadway.

That never happened, just as The Gig hasn't received the wider exposure it's earned, when--I can't resist pointing this out--so many vastly inferior properties have. There must be a musical comedy god or goddess (Thalia? Terpsichore?) somewhere who can right these egregious wrongs--and pronto.

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