Even a warm, fun, country-rock night at the Double Cupp Diner — home of the "Pump Boys and Dinettes" — must come to a close. So the authors of this familiar, honkey-tonk musical revue helpfully provided a number — "Closing Time" — to let the audience know that even lovable shows must end, and the denizens of Highway 57 must get their rest.
On Thursday night at the packed Theo Ubique cabaret Theatre, Purdie Cupp and Retta Cupp (filled out beautifully by Christina Hall and Danni Smith) marked this bittersweet little Act Two number by handing out checks. Real checks.
Addition. Verse. Total. Refrain. The Cupp Sisters didn't miss a table. Or a beat.
At Theo Ubique — which feels exactly like a diner, albeit with an urban Rogers Park vista — the actresses playing the dinettes function simultaneously as actual dinettes themselves (an optional three-course dinner, served in the close quarters of the No Exit Café, is $20.) No wonder the well-known song "Tips" was sung with uncommon passion.
Few shows have played as many performances in and around Chicago as "Pump Boys," which ran for five years in the 1980s at the Apollo Theater and, more recently, had yet another outing at the Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace, where this modest conception had to be pretend to be much larger than its own comfort level. Not at the 60-seat Theo Ubique Theatre, where the easygoing show sits with total ease.
John Foley, one of the talented co-writers and original Pump Boys, was sitting in the house on Thursday night, looking bemused and delighted at how his long-lived revue had, at this juncture, been transformed into a kind of unpretentiously accessible take on environmental theater.
You wouldn't say the director, Fred Anzevino, provides a bevy of new insights into this piece — but then, really, how many new insights into "Pump Boys" does the world need? Anzevino is a master of creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere in his cozy little theater, where he likes to cast newcomers to town, and so it goes here. It's no more, and certainly no less, than an exceedingly comfortable and familiar evening, the kind of mentally undemanding show you can enjoy with friends and a holiday drink, even as you peer through steamed-up windows at the colder, harsher world outside. "Pump Boys" is no longer on any theatrical cutting edge, but it's a proven confection and this particular, laid-back production somehow stimulates more senses more intensely than at any other "Pump Boys" I've seen, and I've seen this thing more times than I've had decent buiscuits.
Anzevino's shows are rarely forced or overplayed — a common problem in Chicago storefront musicals — and his "Pump Boys" is genuinely impressive for the gentle, organic way in which it segues from one moment to another and for the easygoing honesty with which these unassuming, young actor-musicians inhabit their familiar roles. The women are wholly credible and appealing. And the boys are no musical slouches—the guitar strings of Courtney Crouse drive the music and both Jim DeSelm (who also music directs) and the notable newcomer Alex Stage are very decent singers and charmers.
There's no pandering or stereotyping; rather, Anzevino's "Pump Boys" feels like a retro, soft-gauzed celebration of a vanishing roadside culture. OK, so the Pump Boys don't actually pump anything; Anzevino couldn't wheel in a gas station next to the "L" tracks. But that's real work those Cupp Sisters are doing as they sing. And it comes to authenticity, you can't beat doing your characters' actual labor as you try to inhabit their hearts. Studs Terkel would have approved.
When: Through Jan. 15
Where: No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave.
Running time: 2 hours