The Encores! Off-Center series ends its second season with Pump Boys and Dinettes, which opened July 16 and continues through July 19. The long-running musical — a loosely-assembled string of feel-good songs with a country twang — plays well at City Center and should fill the house with happy audiences at Off-Center's relatively low ticket price (with side orchestra seats at $25).
Pump Boys was a surprise hit of the 1981-82 Broadway season. Rooted in cabaret — two of the authors started developing the show while working at a piano bar in a New York steakhouse — the show played three months Off-Broadway before moving to the Princess, a small Broadway house reconverted from the old Latin Quarter nightclub. Pump Boys received a Tony nomination for Best Musical (competing with Dreamgirls and the victorious Nine) and enjoyed a 573-performance run. Authorship was credited to the entire original cast, consisting of John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann. (Thirteen of the 20 songs were by Wann, who also collaborated on three others.)
The pump boys of the title operate a country gas station on Route 57, between Frog Level and Smyrna, NC; the dinettes are the Cupp Sisters, who bake pies at the Double Cupp Diner across the road. Director Lear deBessonet, an Obie winner for The Good Person of Szechwan at the Public Theater, has assembled a hard-working and hard-singing cast.
Hunter Foster (The Bridges of Madison County) leads the pack as Jim, the singer/guitarist/storyteller originally played by Jim Wann. Randy Redd (Ring of Fire) is L.M., Jim's partner at the Pump Boys gas station and the piano player of the evening. (The other men — Jordan Dean, Lorenzo Wolff and musician Austin Moorhead — are on guitar and bass; the girls from the diner pound away on percussive kitchen utensils.)
Mamie Parris (Wicked) is a bright addition to the group as Prudie Cupp, while Katie Thompson pretty much steals the show as Rhetta. This will not surprise playgoers who saw her performance as the "dusty roads" heiress in Michael John LaChiusa's Giant. Here, she is like an energized, ever-ready battery; her solo "Be Good or Be Gone" is the evening's high point. When Thompson sings, sparks fly.
Chris Fenwick, music director of five of the six Off-Center productions thus far, serves in the same capacity (albeit off-stage). Danny Mefford (Fun Home) provided the choreography, while the fascinating set — a back wall collage of miscellania representing both gas station and diner — comes from the always-inventive Donyale Werle (Peter and the Starcatcher). Jeanine Tesori, composer of Violet, Fun Home and Caroline, or Change, is artistic director of Encores! Off-Center.
Pump Boys had a near brush with Broadway last year, when a John Doyle-helmed production was booked into the Circle in the Square for an April 2013 opening. The show was postponed a few weeks before the first preview, citing heavy competition from the spring musicals (including Kinky Boots, Pippin, Matilda the Musical and Motown). As produced at City Center, Pump Boys serves high-octane fun, although the Broadway cancellation was perhaps the right decision.