It is no secret that energy begets energy. In the same vein, art seems to beget art, creativity more creativity, fun more fun. It is often in this cycle of creative begetting that musical cabarets are born.
Last November at an open call for Pump Boys and Dinettes, a musical cabaret set in a 1950s-style gas station and diner on Highway 57 somewhere between rural North Carolina’s Frog Level and Smyrna, some 26 musicians, singers, and actors came to the Missoula Children’s Theatre (MCT) with instruments in hand to audition for the six roles—four string-plucking, keyboard-playing, song-singing, toe-tapping pump boys and two pie-wielding, eyelash-fluttering, hip-wiggling, song-belting waitresses.
“The audition ended up being a giant jam session. Everyone came with their own instruments and songs and the audition became a sort of collaborative show in itself,” says MCT Director Joe Martinez, adding that all 26 performers were called back for the second round of auditions. “That was a first! The show was really difficult to cast. Missoula has some very talented musicians and that’s what this show is all about.”
In fact, Pump Boys and Dinettes is all about the music. Like many musical cabarets there isn’t much of a story or even a strong underlying theme. There is plenty of humorous dialogue and banter that serves as the glue to hold one number to the next, but the songs and the collaborative fun that the six players have with each other are the essence of the show.
Pump Boys and Dinettes, which originally opened off-Broadway in 1981 at the Colonnades Theatre in New York City, was conceived and written by six musicians, who reportedly got together to share some of their work. Like the jam session at the Missoula audition, they bounced their creativity off each other until they had created a show that served as a showcase for their music.
Originally a musician, actor, and dancer himself, Martinez has been directing community musical theatre at MCT since 1993, his most recent being Little Shop of Horrors, Into the Woods, and Forever Plaid. “One of the best parts of this job is the people,” he says. “There are so many talented people in Missoula and during auditions they just seem to come out of the woodwork. I am lucky in this line of work that I get to meet such a broad spectrum of people. People who come to do community theatre are not just theatre people, but people who have the common goal of wanting to create something in a group and share it with others. This show has been like watching a handful of people come together to create a band.”
The cast of six—Greg Bolin, Shane Clouse, Matt Lindahl, Darci Monsos, Nicki Poer, and Louis Stein—includes several MCT veteran actors, a musical director, a member of a local band, an ex-member of a local band, a managing director of a local dance company, an on-the-road-to-Nashville performer, and a theatre rookie or two. Though the troupe comes with a slew of experiences and backgrounds, the common denominator among them, says Martinez, has been their love of music and their willingness and eagerness to experiment and play off one another.
A week before the show opened, Martinez decided to make a 180-degree turn in the staging. The original production and many since have been staged and performed concert-style with standing mikes. The phalanx of microphones stood center stage flanked by the gas station with the piano to one side and the counter and booth of the diner on the other. “We decided to make the show more intimate,” Martinez explains. To do so, he did away with the basic concert style and standing mikes. Instead, cast members are body-miked and move around the stage freely, overlapping each other, acting and reacting. “A concert-style show inherently puts a wall between the performers and the audience,” he says. “With more intimacy among the players comes a greater intimacy with the audience. Since there has been such an organic collaboration among the cast, this less stagnant, more integral, more free-flowing style made enormous sense.”
This openness to frolicking musical fun is contagious. There is something delightfully timeless and inviting about gum-smacking diner waitresses who dish out as much sass as they do homemade pie and broad-chested gas station guys who, inspired by a pretty girl in a convertible, grab a guitar or bass or leap to a keyboard and start belting out some number—be it rockabilly, country, gospel, or melancholy ballad. Along with a tap dancing number, some tip-grubbing, and offers for “pie” (pronounced, of course, with a distinctive and seductive drawl), there is also some creative music making. The guitars, bass, piano, drums and high hat are played with sizzle and spunk, and the music is often jazzed up a couple of notches with sounds from a washboard, wooden spoons, pencils, saucepans, pie pans, coffee cups, cookie tins, and spatulas.
Though the show is set in present day, with an old Hires root beer machine, Philips 66-type signs, and the performers in their flirty waitress aprons and boxy service-station coveralls, there is an unmistakable 1950s feel to it, an old-fashioned, foot-tapping, old-fashioned feel of good, clean, kick-in-the-pants fun. And what’s wrong with that? No big meanings, no layered back story, no tortured characters, just a couple of guys and gals, a few instruments, and a bunch of lungs and vocal chords belting out enough whoop for everyone.