By Ruth Ross
With its long reputation as a producer of great American musical theater, the Paper Mill Playhouse’s choice of Pump Boys and Dinettes as its penultimate production of the 2015-2016 theater season was puzzling. The reason: the show is more a musical revue than a story-driven play with music. That said, the Paper Mill Playhouse gives Pump Boys and Dinettes such a full-throttle professional production, with polished performances—vocal, musical and choreographic—that the evening will even satisfy those of us who like a book seasoned with melody.
Conceived and written by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann, Pump Boys and Dinettes is a musical paean to those colorful rest stops along rural American byways—this one's North Carolina's Highway 57 somewhere between Frog Level and Smyrna—where one can get a tank of gas and a cup of coffee at the same time. The four gas jockeys do repair autos occasionally, but they'd rather spend their time singing, dancing and joking around with the two fetching Cupp sisters who offer their famous home cooking, along with lots of sass, superior vocal talent and agile footwork. In fact, one of the show's joys is the versatility of the six actors to accompany the various "Pump Rock" musical numbers with a myriad of instruments, including guitars, bass, piano, drums and accordion. (Above, L-R: Barry, Bowling and Weber)
Director John Foley has been associated with the show since its Off-Broadway premiere in 1981, so he is more than familiar with the material. To that end, his sprightly direction ensures that the high energy never flags and the show clocks in at just under two hours. And what a fast and furious two hours it is!
The action plays out on a highly evocative set designed by Michael Schweikardt and lit by F. Mitchell Dana, complete with signs for automotive products, neon arches that change color with each musical number and an apron step-down from the main stage that allows some of the performers to get closer and address the audience directly, as do the Cupp sisters in their riff on "Tips." Brian Hemesath's costumes—overalls, jeans, aprons, red tap shoes, bathing suits and frilly skirts can be donned in an instant according to the musical topic at hand. (Right: Weber and Barry)
The plot, such as it is, involves Jim's going fishing instead of taking Rhetta Cupp and her boys to a baseball game, L.M.'s meeting with Dolly Parton after a concert he attends, and a Florida vacation taken by all. In between, L.M.'s warbles an ode to his Mamaw (grandmother), Jackson's praises "Mona," the girls' celebrate their sibling relationship ("Sister") and appreciate the "Farmer Tan" sported by men who work in short sleeves in the hot sun.
The six performers are uniformly superb; many have country music backgrounds, and all play the instruments very well. Standouts are Sam Weber (Eddie) who plays a huge bass fiddle as though it's a guitar (even while lying on his back), Jason Ostrowski (L.M.) who sings soulfully and plays a mean piano, and Alysha Umphress (left) who engages in vocal calisthenics extolling their "Vacation." As Jim, James Barry acts as de facto emcee, Gabe Bowling is easy on the eyes as the resident hunk and Julie Foldesi exhibits great versatility with instruments and vocals. Best of all, the actors perform as an ensemble, supporting and enhancing each other at every turn.
With its strong country music flavor (get a taste of it here), Pump Boys and Dinettes may not be everyone's cup of coffee, but the show's exuberant celebration of a little-known corner of Americana may be just the antidote metropolitan theater-goers need in this political silly season. And while North Carolina may be in the current news for negative reasons, the folks at the Highway 57 rest stop are more interested in serving up a tank of gas and a slice of pie for a pleasant evening at the Paper Mill Playhouse. In that, they succeed.
Pump Boys and Dinettes will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, Wednesday through Sunday until May 1. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.376.4343 or visiting www.PaperMill.org online.
TOP (L-R): Jason Ostrowski, Julie Foldesi, Gabe Bowling, James Barry, Sam Weber and Alysha Umphress.