Brentwood man stars in Pittsburgh CLO show
The cast of “Pump Boys & Dinettes” usually has an actor who can play the bass.
But the Pittsburgh CLO production of the show, a Tony nominee for best musical in 1982, features a South Hills bass player who is making his debut as a professional actor.
Justin Bendel, who grew up in Whitehall and now lives in Brentwood, plays Eddie, along with the bass, in the musical. It opened Jan. 26 and runs through April 15 at the Cabaret at Theater Square in Pittsburgh.
The musical is a “slice of life” focused on the guys who work in a gas station and gals who work in a diner along the fictional Highway 57 in North Carolina.
Eddie is a customer in the gas station waiting for his car, which has broken down, to be repaired, Bendel said.
“I don't say very much, but I do have something to do,” he said.
The car repairs are taking forever, but Eddie doesn't mind because he can jam with the Pump Boys.
“I can relate to the playing because I want to play,” he said.
Bendel, 41, was playing bass for the Pittsburgh Public Theater's production of the musical “The Fantasticks” in the fall. A cast member told him about the CLO's upcoming production of “Pump Boys & Dinettes” and suggested he audition because one of the actors had to be able to play the bass.
“I told them I was going to audition, and then I got freaked out and told them I was canceling. … I just felt like a hack. I'm not an actor,” Bendel said.
CLO producing director Mark Fleischer found out he'd canceled and emailed him to find out why.
When Bendel said he wasn't an actor, the response was: “Let us decide that.”
“Pump Boys” director Benjamin Endsley Klein knew Bendel from directing the CLO production of “First Date” last year. Bendel was a musician for that show.
“I was really hoping he'd come in because I really liked him last year,” said Klein, 36, of New York City.
Bendel finally did, and everything worked out.
“He's fantastic. He's really great,” Klein said. “He really gets into the back story to this.”
Bendel plays both the electric bass and the double bass, which isn't always the case, Klein said, so both can be used in the show.
“Justin has made Eddie his own,” Klein said.
The director said his production doesn't have the 1950s/1960s aura typically associated with the show.
“I've tried to kind of modernize the production,” said Klein, who directed “Ann,” a one-woman show about former Texas Gov. Ann Richards on Broadway, where he also was associate director of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”
A few shows into the run, Bendel said things are going smoothly, he's having fun, and audiences are enjoying themselves.
“It's been well received,” he said.
Bendel is no stranger to musicals — he has been a musician for dozens, including the inaugural show at the CLO Cabaret, “Forever Plaid,” when he played about 400 performances. But, he said, being in the cast makes the experience a lot different.
When he's a pit musician, he said, “the feedback, the applause, it doesn't feel like it's mine, I guess,” he said.
Now that he is in the cast, he said, “I feel like it's more aimed at me.”
Normally, he said, musicians participate in only a few rehearsals before a show's opening night.
He said he really has enjoyed being involved in a show from the beginning and seeing the collaboration among the actors, director and choreographer, along with the experiencing “how the art happens.”
“I got to see the show come to life,” he said.
Bendel said he now is interested in auditioning for the upcoming Pittsburgh CLO production of “Million Dollar Quartet,” another musical in which cast members can play instruments.
The Baldwin High School graduate's range extends beyond musicals, however.
As a classical musician, Bendel has played with several symphony orchestras, including those in Akron, Canton and Youngstown in Ohio; Wheeling in West Virginia; and Erie. Getting a full-time job with an orchestra is his goal.
He has a bachelor's degree in music from Duquesne University and master's degree in music from Carnegie Mellon University. While he was in graduate school, he performed at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York City with Carnegie Mellon's orchestra.
In addition, he has played for gigs with famous singers, including a tour with baritone Patrizio Buanne and performances by Broadway stars Elaine Stritch and Billy Porter.
His favorite performance, he said, was playing in an orchestra backing up Ray Charles on New Year's Eve 1999 at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Fayette County.
When Charles sang “Georgia on My Mind,” Bendel said, “For five minutes, I couldn't believe I was playing that song with this guy right here.”
Bendel teaches double bass at Seton Hill University in Greensburg and also teaches the class “Low String Methods” to music-education majors.
He said he is grateful to his teachers, including Jeffrey Mangone at Duquesne University, who encouraged him to become a professional musician — Bendel initially planned to study music education in college — and the late Donald H. Evans Jr., who was a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
“The bass that I'm playing in this show is his,” Bendel said.
Madelyn Dinnerstein is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.