With a Broadway transfer pending for The Bandstand, and the recent world premiere of A Bronx Tale pointing in the same direction, Paper Mill Playhouse's 2015-16 season has a lot to celebrate in the way of new musicals. It's only reasonable that the buzzing theater should shift down to neutral for a bit with the reliably charming '80s throwback Pump Boys and Dinettes.
It takes substantial effort to find anything particularly offensive in this musical revue, which premiered off-Broadway in 1981, followed by a Tony-nominated Broadway transfer in 1982. Four redneck gas station attendants and a pair of waitressing sisters — who address their patrons at the Double Cupp diner with soothing pet names like "baby" and "sugar" — sing a collection of radio-worthy country ballads and rock tunes as they go about their simple lives off Highway 57. Unless you have a particularly antagonistic relationship with country music (or roadside service), it's 90 minutes of diverting material, which, in this mounting, showcases six extraordinary talents.
John Foley — who created the musical with Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel, and Jim Wann — directs the Paper Mill production with a loose, playful hand. There's hardly any plot to speak of, beyond a few phone calls to the Pump Boys from Uncle Bob who wants to know when his Winnebago will out of the shop. So if we're going to invest in this group of people who stay planted in their single-set environment (a gas station/diner chimera, designed with traditional blue-collar touches by Michael Schweikardt), we have to feel that they've been sharing this stretch of highway all their lives. And with this group of performers, we certainly do.
James Barry is a charismatic emcee as our overall-wearing head Pump Boy Jim. He primarily functions as our irreverent guitar-playing narrator, though he shines brightest in the sweet ballad "Mamaw." He's joined at the gas station by Jason Ostrowski, who tears it up on piano as the nerdy heartbreaker L.M.; Gabe Bowling, who, as the rock-and-roll heartthrob Jackson, goes bare-chested for the tune "Mona"; and Sam Weber, whose scruffy and mostly silent Eddie achieves athletic feats with his double bass (he gets some of the most exciting elements of Joann M. Hunter's choreography).
On the other side of the highway, we have our Dinettes — Julie Foldesi (Prudie) and recent star of Broadway's On the Town, Alysha Umphress (Rhetta) — who give a burst of color to the stage in their bright-pink waitress uniforms (designed by Brian Hemesath). The boys at the station all give strong performances, but in the battle of the sexes, the ladies come out on top. As a bluegrass singer-songwriter, Foldesi shows off her expertise, ripping on the harmonica and settling comfortably into her Linda Rondstadt-esque solo number "Best Man." Umphress, meanwhile, runs away with all the marbles after she lets her vocal chords fly on a few gymnastic riffs in the Act 1 showstopper "Be Good or Be Gone" and then again in the Act 2 group number "Vacation." You'd be hard-pressed to hear better renditions of these tunes than with Umphress, who, beyond her impressive vocal power and flexibility, makes highway living both sexy and wryly comical.
As things go for life on the road, little changes for our down-home characters over the course of this two-act musical menu. But with nostalgia at the heart of Pump Boys and Dinettes, we don't really mind just taking a seat and spending an hour or so looking in the rear-view mirror.