Regional Reviews: New Jersey
The setting is both a gas station and a diner on Highway 57 in North Carolina. Although each is a separate establishment, both are inhabited throughout by the entire ensemble in the manner of a single entity. Gas station proprietors Jim and L.M., along with Jackson and Eddie are the Pump Boys. Sisters Prudie and Rhetta Cupp (The Dinettes) own and operate the Double Cupp Diner.
Customers never intrude (a "Sorry Closed" sign hanging on the side of the on-stage piano doesn't account for much). Jim's uncle calls a couple of times to ask whether his incapacitated Winnebago has yet been repaired. However, the Pump Boys have no interest in undertaking repairs. For there is little pretense that they and the Dinettes are anything other than actor-singer-musicians who are on stage to offer us a country-western musical revue.
Conceived and written by its original castJohn Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann (who wrote 12 of its 19 songs)Pump Boys and Dinettes offers a lively and spirited, fast paced, mostly jocular country-western musical revue. The songs and arrangements span the spectrum of country music of its era.
Although they are lively and pleasant, the Pump Boys songs tend to evoke memories of far superior country classics associated with the likes of Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and Jerry Lee Lewis, which I would have preferred to be hearing. Furthermore, there is neither plot development nor consistency of character. The snatches of story, character, and relationships which are introduced are nothing but set-ups for songs (i.e., Jim has been dating Rhetta and treating her wrong: and Prudie and Rhetta no longer feel the bond that they had as children). The corny, stereotypical humor is of the groaner variety. "You can come down to Highway 57, and eat and get gas" is as good as it gets.
James Barry (Jim) is the lead singer on many of the ensemble songs, and is the principal interlocutor, often speaking directly to the audience. He is tirelessly upbeat and energetic. His musical memory of being raised by his grandmother ("Mamaw") is a nice sentimental moment. Jason Ostrowski captures L.M.'s sweet, sad and silly memory of "The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine." However, the song itself would benefit from a more fully developed lyric. Gabe Bowling (Jackson) and Sam Weber (Eddie) contribute considerably to the upbeat and humorous songs which constitute the Pump Boys ensemble numbers. Judi Foldesi (Prudie) is particularly vivacious as Prudie. Foldesi is always lively and engaged without ever appearing to be working too hard to entertain. Alysha Umphress (Rhetta) has the difficult task of playing the only dissatisfied person on stage. She appears to have not yet fully found the humor and charm to be mined from the role of Rhetta.
The Pump Boys provide first rate musical accompaniment on guitars, bass, piano, accordion, harmonica, and percussion. The Dinettes primarily provide percussion on pots and pans and a variety of kitchen utensils. Several cast members play more than one instrument.
Director John Foley, who created the role of Jackson, is on hand to direct this lively, hard driving Paper Mill revival. Michael Schweikardt has provided a bright, colorful, eminently playable set which is built forward over the orchestra pit into the auditorium and provides a horizontal walkway across its front. Physically, It succeeds to a considerable extent in bringing this small-scale musical closer to the audience in this large theatre.
However, despite the best efforts of a talented cast and solid production team, Pump Boys and Dinettes is simply too rickety and insubstantial to satisfy the expectations that accompany a Paper Mill production.
Pump Boys and Dinettes continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday and Thursday 7:30 pm/ Friday & Saturday 8 pm/ Sunday 7 pm); Matinees: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 pm) through May 1, 2016, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.
Pump Boys and Dinettes Conceived and written by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann: directed by John Foley