When you take in a Las Vegas casino show, you expect to be confronted with glitzified, overproduced versions of familiar entertainments -- like Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular, which adds to Lloyd Webber's already grandiose creation a $4.5 million chandelier and more backstage light-board computers than a NASA command center.
But it's a surprise to confront this intense level of visual hype locally, especially in a musical that's supposed to be about some rumpled gas-station grease monkeys and the darlin' waitresses next door. In this version of the too-often-produced Pump Boys and Dinettes, now at the Carousel Dinner Theatre, there are more intrusive lighting pyrotechnics than a Céline Dion show.
Pump Boys is challenging enough to pull off: Its songs are only serviceable, and the humorous dialogue is so old it has two inches of gray fuzz on it. When one of the perky Cupp sisters, talking about her combined diner and service station, says, "You can eat here and get gas," the audience was uncomfortably silent. It didn't help that there was a two-beat pause after the line, as the cast was evidently waiting for the raucous laughter to subside.
If this show's going to work, it needs down-home simplicity, solid comic characterizations, and razor-sharp timing.
But director Sean Cercone and lighting designer Paul Black are too fond of the haze machine, which fills the stage area with a light mist and makes visible the colored beams from swiveling and pivoting spotlights. Such effects can be stunning when used sparingly. But in this production, the southern rednecks and rubes who sing the show's blues/country/rock/gospel tunes (most penned by Jim Wann) are continually attacked by shafts of hot pink and throbbing purple, usually against a black background. Just the performers' faces are illuminated, and the overall effect is like taking a perfectly decent serving of chicken-fried steak and drowning it in Alfredo sauce.
Playing the lead Boy is Pat McRoberts, an actor of substantial talents who looks as if he's being dragged off to a tooth extraction. He hits the notes, as do most of his compatriots, but the meanings of some songs disappear in the ever-present mist (especially in the potentially touching "Mamaw"). And McRoberts has no facility for the trenchant and witty ad libs, making the second-act audience participation segment a dull slog.
Pianist and singer Steven Ray Watkins turns in a diggin' version of "Serve Yourself," even though he comes up dreadfully short in two other featured songs that require him to be amusing. And as for the Cupp sisters, hot Rhetta (Kate Margaret) is only lukewarm, and pixie-ish Prudie (Sarah Nischwitz) finds herself groping for the right melodies.
If only this production had the straightforward honesty of director Cercone's program notes, in which he recalls the bluegrass music his dad played and shared with him. Now that could be a great show -- no swiveling spotlights required.