Now, this is different. No dimming of house lights. No orchestra fanfare. One minute, I’m jotting down notes from the show’s program. The next, I’m an eager participant in a conversation with the waitress standing at the edge of the stage with one hand on her hip and the other dancing in the air like a meandering butterfly. This animated young lady in candy stripes is what is affectionately known as a “dinette“. Her name is Prudie Cupp.
The politically correct word is neither “waitress” nor “dinette”, but “server”. However, this scene takes place circa 1970 — the year that saw Loretta Lynn’s “Coalminer’s Daughter” at the top of the Country charts. “PC” is not a “thing” yet. Neither are cellphones or Twitter. We’re in a diner that sits on the side of the road, along Scenic Highway 57, somewhere between Smyrna, Georgia and Frog Level, North Carolina. Right across the way (quite literally, stage right) is “L.M. and Jim’s” service station.
Prudie (played by Emily Mulligan-Ferry) engages us in familiar conversation — not just me and my companion, but the whole audience. We’re like a party of 300 that just stepped through the door of the Double Cupp Diner, looking for a cup of coffee and some boysenberry pie. Prudie is happy to accommodate our little group. Her sister Rhetta (played by Cassie Chilton) anticipates our needs and proceeds to bake some extra pies.
The Cupp Sisters are the proud proprietors of the Double Cupp. Prudie and Rhetta are delighted to talk about their quaint establishment and the fellers that work at L.M. and Jim’s. This is their world…when they’re not somewhere else. This world is occupied by the Cupps and the four “pump boys“, L.M. (Alan Plado), Jackson (Nick Moulton), Jim (Cody Craven), and Eddie (Alex Crossland). Somehow, we feel that we’ve known them all of our lives. Credit for that goes to the six performers, who warmly grace us with their southern hospitality.
The pump boys are full of schoolyard antics. Their escapades serve as sharp contrast to the hardworking dinette girls. Some fleeting romantic exchanges remind us that there is a two-to-one ratio of men to women here, and the competition is fierce. So the gas jockeys are forever competing for the attention of Prudie and Rhetta. The weapons of choice are spontaneous breakouts of down-home country song and dance.
There’s no offstage orchestra, as the multi talented cast plays all of the instruments, including guitars, bass, keyboard, percussion and fiddle — all while dancing, singing, and otherwise entertaining us with their quaint stories of life on a crossroads of America.
While the music is decidedly country western and bluegrass, a broad range of styles within those musical genres is on display here. Emily Mulligan-Ferry’s rendition of “The Best Man” was reminiscent of country torch songs like Tammy Wynette’s “Singing My Song”. In sharp stylistic contrast, Cassie Chilton is sultry and self-assertive, singing “Be Good or Be Gone”. Chilton plays with the melody like she’s coaxing notes out of a jazz trumpet. Extra points go to Chilton for showing virtuoso talent, playing fiddle accompaniment to the energetic band of pump boys. Together, Mulligan-Ferry and Chilton make the perfect contrapunctual pair, as evidenced by their bittersweet duet on Sister.
Alex Crossland’s deadpan characterization of drum-playing pump boy Eddie belies his emotional, yet comical, solo turn during “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine”. Nick Moulton’s “Farmer’s Tan” has us convinced of what a yearning farm girl finds most attractive in a man. Alan Prado is not only a singer and keyboardist, but is also a suave hoofer, as evidenced by his fancy footwork on “Drinkin’ Shoes”. Finally, Cody Craven rounds out the group, taking the lead in a rolicking “Taking It Slow” (hint: this song is anything but), and settling into a heartwarming solo about childhood memories with “Mamaw”.
More than anything else, Pump Boys and Dinettes offer the simplicity of life in a bygone time of plain-talking conversation and expression of genuine feelings, unspoiled by the isolation of social media. Simple pursuits are embraced and looked forward to. The world is not necessarily better, but rather more honest, more friendly, and more forgiving.
Pump Boys and Dinettes plays at The Phoenix Theatre Company through August 23rd. For an energetic, toe-tapping, heart-warming experience, we highly recommend it!