A Jewel Theatre production of "Pump Boys and Dinettes."
(Steve DiBartolomeo)
City Life

Change in scenery gives Jewel Theatre ‘new vision’ for long-awaited revival of ‘Pump Boys and Dinettes’

It’s been eight years since the Jewel Theatre staged “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” and with the company’s move from cozy downtown digs to the Colligan Theater, the holiday dessert of a musical that opens next Wednesday “feels like a totally different show, even though it’s the same.”

Eight years — particularly the past eight years — can seem like a long, long time. That’s the gap between the previous production of the musical “Pump Boys and Dinettes” at Santa Cruz’s Jewel Theatre and the production of the same play slated open for a four-week holiday run beginning next Wednesday.

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“It feels like a totally different show, even though it’s the same,” said Jewel’s artistic director, Julie James, who also co-starred in the original production and reprises her role in the new one. “We’re different. The space is different. The mood of the world is different.”

The mood of the world might or might not have any bearing on the new production of “Pump Boys,” but the change in scenery will be significant. The show’s original run in 2013 took place in the tiny Actors’ Theatre (aka Center Stage) in downtown Santa Cruz which, when you’re staging a big dance-y musical, can feel like a broom closet. Since ’13, however, Jewel has moved in as the resident theater company at the much more spacious (and musical-friendly) Colligan Theatre at the Tannery Arts Center.

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“It makes a huuuuuge difference,” said the production’s director and choreographer, Lee Ann Payne. She was also there at the 2013 production, helping with choreography in the no-room-to-spare Center Stage space. The room to spread out at the Colligan has, she said, not only allowed her to bring in more dancing, but for all that dancing to give more dimension to the show’s characters.

“When we started to add a little more of the dance element to it,” she said, “it really showed us that dance was a central part of (these characters’) lives. I mean, if you were to ask the Pump Boys and the Dinettes what they did at night, well, they went over to the local watering hole, sang and danced a bit, and that was all just part of their lives.”

“PB&D” is not a narrative-heavy play. It’s more like a musical revue set on the road somewhere in archetypal middle America (rural North Carolina, to be exact). The “Dinettes” are two sisters working at the local diner, while the “Pump Boys” are the fun-loving musician guys working at the gas station next door. Together, they entertain the audience as a makeshift band stringing together a collection of catchy original songs that occupy a sweet spot between country and pop.

The 2013 production was a solid hit for Jewel, and James has heard for years from some of the theater’s most enthusiastic supporters that they’d like to see it return. The production is, in fact, dedicated to the memory of one such fan and Jewel ticket holder, Bill Mowatt of Santa Cruz, who died in 2020.

It’s also remarkable that, even after eight years, Jewel was able to assemble almost the entire original cast to come back for the revival. Of the eight roles in the play — six Pump Boys and two Dinettes — six performers are returning in their original roles. Five of them are Equity actors.

“It’s so fun to have them re-look at the material from eight years ago and just kind of have a fun take on it,” said director Payne. “So they’re all old friends, but with a new vision on (the play).”

James has played Prudie Cupp, one of the Dinette sisters, in the play five times, including the 2013 Jewel show. Diana Torres Koss, who plays the other sister, has also performed in the play several times. Of the Pump Boys, only guitarist Ric Iverson and drummer Zack Olsen were not part of the ’13 show. Guitarists Christopher Reber and Scott MacDiarmid, as well as bassist Matt Bohn and piano player Brent Schindele all return from the original production.

As for programming, Jewel Theater has generally built its reputation on meaty, intellectually serious drama such as “Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle,” which opened up the Jewel season in September, and “The Weir” by Conor McPherson, which opens in January. “Pump Boys and Dinettes” is not that. It’s much like the light dessert between the heavy entrees, said James.

“Especially going into the holidays,” she said, “it’s time for something easy and entertaining where you can just sit back and enjoy yourself for an hour and a half. It’s the kind of show that plays up relationships and friendships, and enjoying the simple things in life.”

Jewel Theatre's 2013 production of "Pump Boys and Dinettes."
Jewel Theatre’s 2013 production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes.”
(Steve DiBartolomeo)

“Pump Boys” debuted off-Broadway back in 1981, but by the following year, it was playing on Broadway, where it endured with more than 500 performances. It’s been performed across the country and around the world countless times since. One of its songs, “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine,” was even a minor country hit in 1983.

“It’s just another opportunity to have a really pleasant time and bring a smile to the audience,” said James. “It does feel like a different show in the bigger space. It’s still intimate, but we get to flex our dancing and singing muscles a little bit because the space allows us to do that.”

Jewel Theatre’s “Pump Boys and Dinettes” opens next Wednesday, Nov. 17, and runs through Dec. 12, for 18 performances, all at the Colligan Theater at the Tannery Arts Center.

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