Highway 57 revisited
Chico Cabaret presents a rollicking ‘50s-style musical complete with gas pumps
Musicals are tough business.
Not only do the performers have to act, but they have to sing and dance, too.
“It’s so difficult to find people,” says Phil Ruttenburg, artistic director at the Chico Cabaret, about his latest musical offering, Pump Boys & Dinettes, a rockin’ ‘50s comedy set in the South. “I called about 20 people for the parts and finally found the seven we needed who could sing, dance and act.”
Ruttenburg and his wife Sue saw their current musical performed two years ago in Ashland, Ore., and enjoyed the mix of songs performed by four garage guys on guitar, stand-up bass, electric piano and keyboard who carry on a musical dialogue with a pair of waitresses from the neighboring Double Cupp Diner.
The songs are all over the place, from rockabilly to country and gospel, with lots of harmonies and back-up choruses that lend the musical a sweet air of simpler times, when the most popular music in the nation didn’t come from a white rapper fantasizing about killing his mother or kicking pregnant women in the stomach.
Ruttenburg says the show has been performed both on and off Broadway and has had success thanks to the nostalgic songs and the overall emphasis on friendship and life’s simple pleasures that the play celebrates.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he says. “There are only about 10 pages of dialogue … and some rockin’ tunes that the summer crowd should love.”
An early rehearsal at the Cabaret site, located in the Almond Orchard Shopping Center, certainly gives one a sense of the aforementioned “fun” of the musical.
Practicing in front of sets that include an authentic ‘50s gas pump (donated by the Lyons family, who run a local brunch house), parts of an old truck, old gas signs and a nearby diner counter, the small group of performers are obviously enjoying themselves as they run through the country, rockabilly and gospel numbers. The musical takes place just off Highway 57, with a garage fence as a background that joins the auto garage to the nearby diner.
Particularly energetic today is a spiky-blond-haired high school student, Beau Johnson, playing stand-up bass and singing a country rock number.
Amazingly enough, the 17-year old Johnson took on the challenge of learning to play the big acoustic bass just three weeks ago, and he’s already keeping time fairly well. An average audience member probably couldn’t tell of his limited experience on the instrument—a testament to what organizers call his “natural musical abilities.”
“I played piano for seven years,” Johnson says nonchalantly, eager to get back on stage and back up his fellow performers, “and I’m a PV drum major.”
Johnson says that he loves the musical ("musicals are a hobby of mine") and that it has indeed been fun picking up the new instrument so quickly.
Fun, fun, fun: That’s all I seem to hear today, as the performers plow through the numbers, still getting down their timing and steps.
Directing the play is 23-year musical veteran Brian Holderman, a robust, Buddha-like Marigold fifth-grade teacher who shouts encouragement and direction to the players after each number.
“This musical has the triple threat of singing, dancing and acting, which is why it isn’t performed so often—but it’s great when it works,” he says.
Probably the toughest part for this group, he says, has been getting down and coordinating the dance steps, though each of the actors has his or her particular skills honed in previous productions.
One number I watch today features a perky waitress played by Sandy Graham who belts out a flirtatious blues tune to guitarist Steve Bowman, a scene that reminds me of the Aretha Franklin song from the film The Blues Brothers—with a hint of Waiting for Guffman thrown in.
Musical director Nancy Svec, a lifelong participant in theater as a local teacher, plays backing piano for most of the numbers and says that for her the ‘50s songs stir memories of a nostalgic time.
“Because of my age, I love the ‘50s music. The songs are very sweet … just good clean fun,” she says.
Player and Chico State vocal student Karl Iverson also performs on keyboard, though his instrument is lodged beneath the rusted hood of a classic ‘50s Chevy. Asked about his attraction to the musical, Iverson said he enjoys getting as much experience outside the classroom as possible and that this musical has indeed been “fun.”
When asked whether the Almond Orchard location is a hindrance to strong audience turnouts, Rutteburg says that he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Personally, I wouldn’t want the theater downtown because there can be parking problems. Here we have a lot of parking space and we’re right off the freeway.”
He sees the Cabaret as a “true community theater” that gives opportunities to performers from all age groups and experience levels.
“Our goal is to constantly be introducing new talent and providing fresh faces with opportunities to perform for the local community,” he says. “And so far, this current cast is doing a great job. It should be a great show.”
Patrons have the option of paying $24 dollars for a full dinner compliments of Guzzetti catering. It’s served an hour before the show at tables arranged on the main floor in front of the stage.
“Don’t forget to mention that we do have air conditioning," Ruttenburg says, laughing. "That’s the reason why so many people go to the movies in the summer—and we have one here that’s just as good!"