Growing up in the small town of Wynne, Arkansas, Cori Cable Kidder dreamed of being an actress in musicals. She first gave New York City a shot by moving there in 2011, but it was when she moved to Los Angeles in 2013 that her career really took off. As the star of the musical “Always…Patsy Cline” at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, she was nominated for a prestigious Ovation Award in 2015 thanks to her performing 27 classic tunes by the country singer.
Now she’s back at the playhouse, with its current musical “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” which follows the musical adventures of a team of waitresses at a diner and the guys who work at the gas station across a North Carolina highway in the 1970s. The play had an improbable start in 1981, starting as a musical act at the country-themed Cattlemen’s Lounge in New York before becoming an off-Broadway show in 1981, and finally moving to Broadway in 1982.
Unlike the two-woman tour de force of “Always,” in which Kidder sang Cline’s songs while another actress portraying her best friend recounted her life story, “Pump” has a full cast, with the added unusual touch of the “pump boys” actually playing the instruments for the production’s country-rock originals. This is the first time that “Pump” has been presented in a Los Angeles-area venue in 13 years, making it an even more special experience for Kidder.
“It’s hard to compare the two shows because they’re so very different, but this is a more traditional musical with a larger ensemble,” says Kidder. “We’re all working together to make this thing happen. It’s definitely good to be part of a bigger team and be reminded of how many people it takes to really make a show successful. It’s wonderful to rely on these wonderful new friends.”
Kidder plays Rhetta, one half of a waitress duo known as the Cupp Sisters, with Emily Kay Townsend as Prudie Cupp. The Pump Boys are Sean Paxton as L.M. (musical director/keyboards), Mike Murray as Jim (guitar), Jimmy Villaflor as Jackson (guitar), Kevin Tiernan as Eddie (bass), and Jim Miller as Bobby (drums).
Critically acclaimed director/choreographer/producer/actor/dancer Allison Bibicoff directs and choreographs, with a long list of credits, including “Around the World in 80 Days” at North Coast Rep. She has also directed the musicals “Oliver!,” “Tanglin’ Hearts,” “China- The Whole Enchilada;” “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Honky Tonk Angels,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and “The Pajama Game,” among others.
“There are 20 songs in the show, all original, so it’s not a jukebox musical, but there’s still not a lot of dialogue,” says Bibicoff, a Brooklyn native who has lived in LA since she was 7. “They’re country-pop, with the men singing, acting and playing on stage while the women sing and play percussion.
“What makes it the most fun is the music and I’m not a country fan at all, so it’s a real pleasure,” Bibicoff continues. ”The biggest challenge is for me as a director I try to tell the story through the song, but they are tethered to their instruments so how do I tell the story while they’re constantly playing?”
Bibicoff pulled it off by treating the show as if it was new in order to make it fresh for herself, then studied past productions “so we didn’t miss anything fabulous.” That’s music to the ears of Kidder, who launched her professional career in 2006 in regional theater before landing the national tour of the 1940s-style big-band musical “In the Mood” as her first break. She also played the saloon owner of the Diamond Horseshoe Saloon at Tokyo Disneyland before moving to LA.
“I wanted to start working locally and wasn’t having much luck in that department in upstate New York and Pennsylvania, wasn’t getting seen,” recalls Kidder. “I came here and it’s such a different world out here as far as auditioning goes. Less people, and just as much talent. There won’t be 500 girls at an audition, but all the girls there will be somebody to compete with.
“Sierra Madre Playhouse is dedicated to quality theater and they really go out of their way to produce shows that their audience will identify with,” she adds. “They took a chance on me with Patsy Cline and without them I wouldn’t have the opportunities I have now. They consider talent and personality and work ethic, making sure you have good people to work with. It makes a difference in quality of a production, both onstage and backstage in rehearsal. “
“Pump Boys and Dinettes” runs at 8 p.m. Fridays, 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays through July 29 at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Tickets are $20 to $45. Call (626) 355-4318 or visit sierramadreplayhouse.org.