In only a year's time, the original production of Pump Boys and Dinettes worked its way from Off-Off-Broadway at the Chelsea West Side Arts Theater to Broadway's Princess Theater, garnering a Tony nomination for Best Musical of 1982 along the way. The current revival at Manhattan Theater Source makes it easy to understand the show's appeal; this is an unpretentious hour and a half of good music and good times. Even if you're not a fan of country music, you will have a hard time not swaying to the rhythms put down by the talented cast. Franklin Golden plays Jim, an irresponsible yet lovable rascal who runs a garage along Highway 57 deep in North Carolina. When not taking his customers' cars out for joyrides or fishing with the boys, he spends his free time courting Rhetta Cupp, who owns the Double Cupp Diner down the road along with her sister, Prudie. But Jim's carefree ways have landed him on Rhetta's bad side. And he deserves to be there, after ditching a date with her in favor of the call of the catfish.
So Jim sings his odes to catfish, vacations, and the Southern lifestyle, backed up by Eddie (Zeb Holt), the silent bass player; Jackson (Mitch Rothrock), a bright-eyed scamp on lead guitar; and pianist L.M. While Jim may be the frontman, each member gets his say (except for Eddie, who really doesn't have anything to say). Still, it's L.M. (Michael Hicks) who steals the show by pounding the keys in a furious tirade against women ("Serve Yourself"), crooning about his star-crossed night with a country music star ("The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine"), and finally tap-dancing while accompanying the Dinettes on accordion ("Farmer Tan").
Over at the Double Cupp (which is actually just a few steps across the stage), Rhetta (Amy Heidt) and Prudie (Kate Middleton) accompany the boys, banging pots and pans and candy jars to provide percussion. They, too, get their share of the spotlight. The groove of "Tips" is nearly irresistible, and Rhetta's admonishment of her beau's behavior in "Be Good or Be Gone" makes for a fun ditty. The show stops dead for Middleton's performance of "The Best Man," revealing her amazing voice with its innocent-sounding timbre and perfect tone. But be prepared: these girls might at one point drag you out of your seat and up onstage to serenade you.
Of course, good performances by the cast almost invariably mean good direction. Since the performers in Pump Boys and Dinettes are this endearing, praise is certainly due to director Laura Standley. She guides the play's tone, making sure that every cast member lampoons his or her character type while displaying the affectionate respect that every culture deserves but that Southern culture rarely receives in New York theater. Even when playing Southern caricatures, the cast members invite the audience to laugh both at them and with them, charming the heck out of everybody in the process.
Also deserving praise is the stage design. On the Pump Boys' side of the stage, L.M.'s piano stool is made of old tires. On the Double Cupp side, the pies that come out of the oven look better than the ones at the diner across the street from the theater. And the walls are peppered with old tin soda and gasoline advertisements.
If you're looking for fun music and a show where the performers freely interact with the audience, you'll find that Pump Boys and Dinettes is a gem of escapist theater—complete with a free raffle.