Pump Boys and Dinettes, the current production at Millburn, New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, is more a revue than a traditional book musical, with no story line connecting the show’s many musical numbers. It’s more a boutique musical — small in scope but big on talent.
The first thing that hits you when you enter the theater is the set by Michael Schweikardt, bright with colorful signage advertising the offerings of the garage on the left where the four Pump Boys work and the turquoise and chrome diner on the right owned and operated by the two Dinettes. Jim (James Barry), Jackson (Gabe Bowling), L.M. (Jason Ostrowski) and Eddie (Sam Weber) man the garage, in their fashion. Prudie Cupp (Julie Folds) and Rhetta Cupp (Alysha Umphress) are sisters and the proud proprietors of the Double Cupp Diner, where they make and serve the self-proclaimed best coffee and pies in the state as well other diner fare.
This versatile bunch brighten their workday with country and blues rock songs and accompany themselves with piano, guitars, bass, accordions, a bit of harmonica virtuosity, and percussion that includes inventive use of kitchen tools and counter stools. There’s a good deal of athletic stage business and even a smattering of tap dance.
The scene is set in the first song, “Highway 57,” which tells us the garage and diner are located on that road in North Carolina. The characters all speak with a Southern twang, but the setting could be Anyplace, USA — any location where people can slow down a bit and enjoy the company of these very charismatic workers.
The songs cover subjects as diverse as what appears on the diner’s menu, a heartfelt homage to a departed relative, a reverential ode to tipping, and a longed-for vacation. Simple songs from simple folk. But that’s the charm of the show. It avoids the bigger themes of full-scale musicals and offers instead a fairly conflict-less mini-concert.
Weber’s Eddie plays that bass like no one else you’ve ever seen. Whether sitting on it and playing, lying on the stage and dangling it above him, or holding it like a guitar, he adds acrobatics to his playing, making for some highly entertaining stage business.
Ms. Umphress has a sassy stage presence and a powerful soprano, and brings down the house with a blues-y number, hitting low notes that channel Big Mama Thornton. Ms. Foldesi has a lighter voice and an instantly likable personality, and contributes accordion accompaniments and a nifty harmonica solo.
The show takes a brief turn to heartbreak with “Mamaw,” in which Mr. Barry’s Jim tells about his beloved grandmother. It’s a plaintive ballad that departs from the rest of the score’s high-energy tunes. We’re allowed to savor the lyrics as Jim builds a mood, reflecting a staple of country music — a tale of melancholy.
Mr. Ostrowski’s L.M., who plays piano, has a standout, comical number in which he expresses his devotion to his personal idol. As he sings “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine,” he glances to a framed photo of Dolly, perfectly spotlighted above him. His soulful, longing interpretation is a humorous commentary on the loyal reverence for country stars.
Pump Boys and Dinettes is a departure for the Paper Mill, which usually stages book musicals. The show is fairly short, running under two hours, including a fifteen-minute intermission. In fact, to extend the show a bit, there’s a built-in reprise and an encore as well as a mini-medley of songs we’ve just heard. This may have been inspired by “Joseph and the Amazing Tehnicolor Dreamcoat.”
The show was originally conceived and written by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann and first appeared off-Broadway in 1981. It moved to Broadway the following year, where it won Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations for Best Musical. The Paper Mill production is directed by co-creator John Foley.
The show really connects with its audience. With such unbridled enthusiasm emanating from the stage and with such rousing melodies, it’s hard to avoid the show’s charm. Even if you’re not a particular fan of country music, the performances and sheer energy level are enough to win you over.
Pump Boys and Dinettes will be performed through May 1. Performances are Wednesday at 7:30 P.M., Thursday at 1:30 and 7:30 P.M., Friday at 8 P.M., Saturday at 1:30 and 8 P.M., and Sunday at 1:30 and 7 P.M. Ticket prices begin at $32 and may be purchased by calling (973) 376-4343, at the Paper Mill Playhouse box office at 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn, or online at www.PaperMill.org.