I love the way that so many theatre companies have leaped out of the lockdown with exuberant, uplifting productions that remind us that the world doesn’t have to be such a forbidding place. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with a good drama, but a fun, tension-free, vibrant show—especially if it’s a musical—feels like just the ticket for the Fall After COVID. And Porchlight Theatre is opening its new season with a less-frequently-done show that is one of the most feel-good musicals I know, 1982’s Pump Boys And Dinettes, a 90-minute country, blues, and rock flavored concert by six working-class people who run a gas station/garage and a small dinette along Route 57 in North Carolina.
In bringing this show to Porchlight in 2021, Director Daryl D. Brooks, himself the product of a small town off of a highway in Virginia, updated the diversity of the cast (which was—no surprise here—all white back in the 80s) and even got one of the writers (Jim Wann) to write a new song for it. (If you’re interested, that song is “Surf Castin’ Man,” as Wann replaced the goofy and trivial “Farmer Tan” with something more introspective and soulful.) Brooks and his cast also get to play on what surely is among the most elaborate sets this musical has ever had, a brilliant piece of verisimilitude (with a touch of art deco fun) by Set Designer Sydney Lynne.
Porchlight’s “Pump Boys” are Rafe Bradford as the quiet bass player Eddie, Billy Rude as the lead guitar-playing Jackson, Ian Paul Custer as rhythm guitarist Jim, whose song “Mamaw” is one of the most poignant moments of the night, and Frederick Harris as pianist L.M., whose “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine” is one of its greatest flights of fancy. The “Dinettes,” the two Cupp sisters who run the neighboring Double Cupp Diner, are played by Shantel Cribbs (as Prudie) and Melanie Loren (as Rhetta). The Cupps are real crowd-pleasers with songs like Prudie’s “The Best Man” and Rhetta’s “Be Good or Be Gone” as well as numbers they do together. (They also handle all of the percussion, using “found” items from the dinette including a rolling pin, a container of salt, a can of coffee, spatulas, wooden spoons, and even one of those glass-and-metal countertop straw containers.)
This is the kind of show in which the cast comes to the edge of the stage to talk and joke with the audience. The conceit is that this large group of people were in a bus that broke down close by and is currently undergoing repairs; this and the bumpy relationship between Jim and Rhetta are what passes for plot in a show that neither needs nor wants one. The raison d’etre for this show is to use music to allow the characters to express themselves and have fun (and avoid phrases like raison d’etre). Thus we get the Dinettes singing about the critical importance of “Tips,” the Pump Boys extolling the pleasure of “Catfish,” and the whole company exhorting us to put on our “Drinkin’ Shoes” before heading out to intermission.
Porchlight’s production wipes clean almost all of the stereotypical “80s” from this show, and Brooks’ vision and direction help it fit seamlessly into today’s world, in which its blend of bouncy, joyful songs and occasional slower character pieces feels right at home. Mostly, however, it is designed to get us tapping our toes and clapping our hands as we enjoy this buoyant, jubilant slice of life that puts COVID, politics, and the economy completely out of our minds for an hour and a half. And that is welcome indeed.
Pump Boys and Dinettes plays at Porchlight Theatre through Dec 12. Tickets may be purchased at the theatre’s website.