Young’uns With a Yen for Wisdom
By Charles Isherwood
New York Times
A little strip of lonesome highway has plopped down at City Center, where a flavorsome revival of the chicken-fried musical revue “Pump Boys and Dinettes” plays through Saturday as part of the Encores! Off-Center series. Should you pull off the road for a fill-up, a Coke and a piece of pie, you’ll find amiable company in the show’s beaming cast members, who make like a big old human jukebox as they sing of the daily grind in a gas station (the pump boys) and the roadside coffee shop nearby (the dinettes).
First seen Off Broadway in 1981, the musical was a homespun collaboration among the men and women who performed it. The book, music and lyrics are by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann — and all but Mr. Hardwick, who died in 1993, were on hand to celebrate on Wednesday’s opening night. The little show moved uptown the next year, to big bad Broadway, where it ran for more than a year and subsequently spawned countless regional and amateur theater stagings. (A planned Broadway revival announced a couple of seasons ago never materialized.)
A scene from the number “Highway 57” from the Encores! Off Center production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes.” Video by Encores! on Publish Date: July 17, 2014.
The new production, featuring a cast of likable and versatile actor-musicians led by the veteran Hunter Foster, has been shined up nicely but still maintains a loose, down-home vibe. Christmas-tree lights, road signs, country-music posters and various bric-a-brac are splattered across the lively set by Donyale Werle. Tin cans do double duty as footlights.
We are situated on Highway 57, where Jim (Mr. Foster) and L. M. (Randy Redd) run a gas station that doesn’t appear to get a whole lot of business. Still, they and their buddy Jackson (Jordan Dean) haven’t found time to repair Jim’s uncle’s defunct Winnebago because they are too busy filling the long days by making music. (“Taking It Slow,” as an early song is titled, is their workday motto.)
They also flirt up a miniature tornado with the women down the road a spell (actually just across the stage), the sisters Prudie Cupp (Mamie Parris) and Rhetta Cupp (Katie Thompson), who serve up homemade pies and generously poured coffee at the Double Cupp diner. These big-hearted gals also help out in the music making, using whatever pot or pan comes to hand to provide the percussion.
Mr. Wann, the show’s lead songwriter, and his collaborators whipped up more than a dozen nifty tunes, plaintive to jubilant, evoking country radio staples ranging from the pounding-the-piano country rock of Jerry Lee Lewis to heart-sore tales of absent men redolent of Tammy Wynette.
Mr. Foster, who has appeared in a wide range of roles on Broadway (most recently in “The Bridges of Madison County”), seems right at home in this way-off-Broadway milieu, guitar slung over his shoulder and baseball cap snugly clamped on his head. He’s more or less the master of ceremonies, and takes the lead vocals on many of the songs, perhaps most memorably on the yearning “Mamaw,” an ode to a beloved grandmother whose death still plucks at his heart: “Didn’t you find my sheriff’s badge when I was 7? Didn’t you let me drive your car when I was 11 and a half? Didn’t we laugh?”
In between songs, Jim dispenses good-old-boy wisdom and carries on a bit with Rhetta, but the pump boys are pretty laconic fellows. They prefer to do the talking with their guitars. Mr. Dean, strapping and handsome, takes the lead along with Mr. Foster on a celebration of the boys’ favorite pastime, namely fishing, which they sing of with religious reverence in “Fisherman’s Prayer” and the rousing “Catfish.”
Mr. Redd, who plays a mean piano, is somewhat incongruously cast as the supposed lady killer L. M. (He’s cute, sure, but are nerdy glasses really such a draw in these parts?) In one of the evening’s funniest songs, he sings somberly of “the night Dolly Parton was almost mine,” about a holy evening spent in near-intimacy with the buxom goddess of country music, which may have soured the poor fellow on all other women.
Ms. Parris and Ms. Thompson are equally terrific. In their trim blue waitress uniforms and aprons, they set forth their differing views on men. Prudie is the romantic, singing with an ache in her voice of a lost love in the country-torchy “The Best Man.” Rhetta, on the other hand, drives a harder bargain when it comes to the opposite sex. Ms. Thompson’s big, rangy voice gets a nice workout on her no-good-man number, laying down the law in “Be Good or Be Gone.”
Although “Pump Boys and Dinettes” still makes for a genial entertainment — and trim, at 90 minutes including intermission — it naturally doesn’t feel quite as fresh as it must have in 1981, before Broadway had become awash in musicals drawing on the rock and pop charts for inspiration. Back then, too, country music probably occupied a smaller cultural niche, before blockbuster crossover acts like Garth Brooks, Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks made their mark.
But while some of the novelty may have worn off, this glossy and good-natured production, directed by Lear deBessonet (of the much-loved Foundry Theater production of Brecht’s “Good Person of Szechwan”), still hums along like a vintage Mustang that’s just had a full tuneup. Whether or not Broadway beckons — and Lord knows the environment there has changed mightily since the 1980s — there’s plenty of mileage in this vehicle yet.
Pump Boys and Dinettes
Book, music and lyrics by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann; directed by Lear deBessonet; music director, Chris Fenwick; choreography by Danny Mefford; sets by Donyale Werle; costumes by Clint Ramos; lighting by Mark Barton; sound by Leon Rothenberg; music coordinator, Seymour Red Press; production stage manager, Adam John Hunter. An Encores! Off-Center production, presented by City Center, Arlene Shuler, president; Jeanine Tesori, artistic director; Mark Litvin Sr., managing director. At City Center, 131 West 55th Street, Manhattan, 212-581-1212, nycitycenter.org. Through Saturday. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
WITH: Jordan Dean (Jackson), Hunter Foster (Jim), Mamie Parris (Prudie Cupp), Randy Redd (L. M.), Katie Thompson (Rhetta Cupp) and Lorenzo Wolff (Eddie).