Paper Mill Serves Up Grits and Gas in Country-Centric "Pump Boys and Dinettes"
Somewhere along North Carolina’s Highway 57, between Frog Level and Smyrna, lies a special rest stop. It’s a place where you’ll find four hardworking guys that pump gas at the station while working on cars, drinking beer and performing great tunes. Meanwhile, their neighbors at the Double Cupp Diner, the Cupp sisters, offer up home cooking and songs of their own. Together, they form the basis of “Pump Boys and Dinettes” — a musical full of joy, a dash of heartbreak and lots of laughter.
While New Jersey may be best known for rock and roll, country music and the sounds of rockabilly have always been fan favorites as well. Both are well represented in “Pump Boys and Dinettes” — the latest musical presented at Paper Mill Playhouse, which runs now through May 1st.
“Country music is music about the people, the victories and struggle of the regular folk’s life, hard work, prayer and hope for survival,” explained Jersey Shore musician Kevin John Allen, whose latest CD, “Colours,” was released in April. “In as much as television and the media likes to show the rich and famous (and too often presents that as a thing to strive for), the reality is that most people are simply hard working, day to day folks. They’re trying to pay the bills, feed the family, and — even though they are watching the TV lives of the famous — country music helps them to know that their efforts are not in vain; the work and sweat is pretty much universal and the sheer simplicity of the songs is what is taken to the heart. We all want love, stability and have a faith that endures which says, ‘Hard work will make a difference.’”
“Pump Boys and Dinettes” was a hit on Broadway in the early 1980s, earning Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations for Best Musical. The show then moved on to successful runs in London’s West End and Chicago.
Paper Mill’s cast includes James Barry, Gabe Bowling, Julie Foldesi, Jason Ostrowski, Alysha Umphress and Sam Weber. The production features choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter and direction by John Foley, someone who is very familiar with this play.
“Not only has John (Foley) directed the show several times, but he was one of the original creators and was in the original company,” said Paper Mill Playhouse Producing Artistic Director Mark S. Hoebee. “He brings to the production such a wealth of history and information. He knows how the songs were born. He knows the meanings behind the lyrics. He knows why the characters react and interact the way they do and what their backstory is — information that is not on the written page. To have access to this material is invaluable to an actor and makes a production so rich. It’s not necessarily something you see, but it is something you feel because it comes directly from the storyteller himself through the actors to the audience. And we have a wonderful cast of actors to bring this incredible score to life. It is going to be a fun-filled country jamboree of an evening.”
In recent years, country music has seen a resurgence across the Garden State. National performers like Rascal Flatts, Blake Shelton and Lady Antebellum drew crowds between 50,000-80,000 for shows on the Atlantic City beach. Meanwhile, artists like Williams Honor, Madeline Smith, Payton Taylor, Anjelia and Corey Wagar are just some of the home grown talent from the Garden State to make a name for themselves as country artists.
“People simply love a good story and good songs, and that is what country music is about - relating to people,” said Reagan Richards, who teamed up with Gordon Brown (Mr. Reality, Highway 9) to form Williams Honor. “I say it all the time that people think that if a fiddle is thrown into a song, it makes it a country song. What makes a country song is a lyric that people can understand and follow. Country music has always been here, it's just now obviously accepted more in the mainstream.”
Michael Patrick thinks more exposure to country music in recent years has helped spur interest. “I think the addition of country music radio stations in the area has helped boost support from both existing fans and newcomers alike,” said Patrick, a Garden State artist who performs solo, with his band The Suburban Hillbillies, and with his Ring of Fire band — a Johnny Cash tribute group. “On top of that, newer ‘modern country’ has a more commercial appeal and much of it has crossover exposure with pop influences. Then you add to that all of the country music award shows and TV’s ‘Nashville’ and country music is getting a lot more exposure than in years past.”
Mark S. Hoebee says he first saw a production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes” in Chicago during the 1980s and was instantly hooked. He loved the music, the characters and how much fun the musical was. When Paper Mill was given the opportunity to produce the show, they jumped at the chance.
“It’s a home-spun kind of entertainment that you don’t often get the opportunity to experience,” said Hoebee. “I knew that Paper Mill could deliver a wonderfully talented cast of actor/musicians to bring this show to life on our stage and I also knew there was a whole audience of people out there who weren’t familiar with it. There is such love for country music in this country and yet there aren’t a lot of musicals that feature this type of score.”
It isn’t often you’ll see a musical with music that goes beyond piano and guitar to include fiddles, banjos, ukuleles, harmonicas and even kitchen utensils, but that’s what makes this play so unique. The musical isn’t just about country music; it also contains songs that will appeal to fans of early rock and roll, rockabilly and today’s Americana artists. Tom Richards, a Jersey musician who has been a longtime member of the Nashville Musicians Association Local 257 union, believes country music and rock and roll have more in common than most realize.
“Early rock and roll came out of the country music scene of the 1950s,” explained Richards. “Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and even Buddy Holly were all southern boys rooted in bluegrass, blues and gospel. They created a sound that is truly ‘roots rock.’ There is something about country and roots rock that touches people on a deep emotional level. The lyrics, combined with music that simply but passionately captures a mood is timeless. It endures because people can relate a moment or a feeling to it.”
As someone that performs traditional country music and is a fan of that era, Michael Patrick credits its longevity to its simplicity and sincerity. “There’s something to be said for ‘Three Chords and The Truth.’ Performers were creating something new at the time, melodies that stuck and spoken with clear language lyrically unlike much of today’s commercial music, which has been known to follow a formula.”
“’Pump Boys’ brings back a simpler time, a time of innocence that many today long for,” added Kevin John Allen. “For two hours, it brings you back to a place without all of the nasty distractions of today’s world. That’s why I feel the play and its simple songs works so well.”
If you’d like a break from today’s world, come to “Pump Boys and Dinettes.” If you’re a country music fan, you’ll love this play. And if you don’t consider yourself a country music fan, you might leave humming a different tune.
Paper Mill Playhouse is located at 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn, NJ. For more information visit www.papermill.org.