Although a lucky audience member at Charlotte Repertory Theatre in North Carolina wins a car air-freshener every night (true to the history of the populist show), what's fresh about the new staging by Michael Bush is a directorial take that enhances the tension between the Cupp sisters (who run the diner) and technological advances that allow the show to break away from the presentational world of musical revue. Don't expect to see mikes, or mike stands: This show moves.
Bush told Playbill On-Line the actor-musicians, including the show's co-writer Jim Wann, are all over the stage now. And that rolltop desk? Don't be surprised if it turns into a piano.
This resident production features Emily Skinner (Broadway's Side Show, The Full Monty and Dinner at Eight) and Lynne Wintersteller (of the original Closer Than Ever and Broadway's A Grand Night for Singing), as sisters Prudie and Rhetta Cupp, who run the Double Cupp Diner. The Pump Boys are Jim Wann (as Jim), Miles Aubrey (as Jackson), Randy Redd (as L.M.) and Louis Tucci (as Eddie).
Songs have been reassigned (Prudie sings "Vacation," not Rhetta, for those keeping score) to heighten the tension between the characters, Bush said, but it's not a total makeover. There is still interaction with the audience, still quirky specialty numbers, and still innocence spiked with cynicism.
"I saw a way to link the relationships here and bring out a storyline, yes, very slim," Bush told Playbill On-Line. "It is, in a sense, still a country-western revue. There is a storyline underneath it all. A heightened dynamic between the sexes. At the point when the Dinettes play percussion, there is something going on between them — a tension that is reconciled." Wann, who calls the show "guitar theatre," has written a new number, "Wild About My Honey." The score still includes such favorites as "Highway 57," "Mona," "Menu Song," "Drinkin' Shoes," "Be Good or Be Gone," "Tips," "Sister" and "Farmer Tan."
Bush said commercial producers from New York are heading down to the Charlotte, where the staging opened Sept. 11 after previews from Sept. 6, and continues to Oct. 5. There is a possibility the production may extend a week at the Booth Playhouse in Charlotte. There is also a possibility that a national tour may follow.
Pump Boys and Dinettes was a surprise entry in the 1981-82 Broadway season, and was Tony Award nominated for Best Musical (Nine won Best Musical that season, besting Dreamgirls). The original writing team included Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Foley, Mark Hardwick, John Schimmel and Jim Wann, who all performed in the show as well, at the Princess Theatre. Tours and a cast album followed, and it's still a stock and regional mainstay.
For the Charlotte run, the musical arrangements have also been refreshed. Members of the original cast have been invited to come see the production, and gave permission to designate the Charlotte show as the official 20th anniversary production.
For newcomers to this territory, the musical is "set at a filling station on Highway 57 — somewhere between Frog Level and Smyrna — and the Double Cupp Diner right across the road." It's billed as "a musical celebration of rural working-class America. The Cupp sisters who run the diner and the men who work the gas pumps serve up a musical revue that blends blues, Gospel, folk, rockabilly, a cappella and swing, all with a musical theatre twist. The actors/singers also provide the instrumental accompaniment."
Choreography is by Janet Watson, who choreographed the original Broadway production of Big River. Musical supervisor is Joel Silberman, co-creator of last season's Let Me Sing at Charlotte Rep.
Designers are Charlotteans Jim Gloster (set) and Bob Croghan (costume), Tracy Klainer (lighting) and Rossi Craft (sound).
For information about Charlotte Rep's season, or for tickets, call (704) 372-1000 or visit www.charlotterep.org.
Pump Boys and Dinettes was also Drama Desk nominated for Best Score, and nommed in London for a Best Musical Olivier Award and won Toronto's Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best Musical.
Wann hasn't performed in the show since he did it in Los Angeles in 1986.
The musical played 573 performances on Broadway. Dodger Productions was billed as the first of the producers in the Playbill.