‘Pump Boys’ delivers sharp music, good performances, modest laughs

“Pump Boys and Dinettes” was a unique show when it opened on Broadway just over 30 years ago and it still is – an amiable, slap-happy revue that pokes fun at our rural roots and country cousins without ever seeming mean-spirited.

The lively production now running at the New Theatre does it up right. Director Richard Carrothers, working with music director Chuck Mead and choreographer Richard J. Hinds (credited with “musical staging”) gets the most out of a talented cast. Indeed, the actors manage to sell the charm of this show, even when the material shows its age.

“Pump Boys” was written by the people who originally performed it – John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann – and the result is a sort of countrified pastiche that is often played for laughs and now and then steps back to generate a little honest sentiment.

The show is set in a sort of North Carolina neverland somewhere on old Highway 57 between Smyrna and Frog Level. There’s a gas station, where four happy-go-lucky guys try not to work too hard, and the Double Cupp Diner, where two sassy but unassuming waitresses spend their days making pies.

It isn’t really a play, because the narrative exists as little more than a suggestion, but it is an excuse to stitch together some memorable songs mined from the country, rock and gospel traditions.

Anchoring the production as Jim is guest star Gregory Harrison, whose appealing, relaxed charisma does a lot to buoy the show. Nobody familiar with his Broadway experience should be surprised to know that the guy can sing, and he puts his abilities to particularly good use on the affecting “Mamaw,” a reminiscence of the character’s grandmother.

Jennifer Mays and Broadway veteran Marya Grandy as the waitresses, Rhetta and Prudie Cupp, are good team who deliver memorable duets, especially the amusing “Tips.” And they each get nice solos. Mays’s delivery of the “The Best Man” is memorable and Grandy demonstrates a stunning voice on “Be Good, or Be Gone.”

The other Pump Boys get their moments to shine, too. James Barry, who appeared on Broadway in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” demonstrates impressive guitar skills throughout and sells “Mona,” an ode to a cashier, for all it’s worth. Scott Pearson as L.M. has an eccentric but impressive stage presence; he plays the heck out of the keyboards and delivers two of the show’s best tunes – “Serve Yourself” and “Farmer Tan.” Dean Vivian, who plays standup bass, has some fun with “The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine.”

The actor/musicians are backed up by Steve Riley on drums and Matt Dollar on steel guitar and the entire production benefits from tight, crisp arrangements.

As we’ve come to expect from the New Theatre, the physical production is first-rate. Randy Winder’s mood-shifting lighting and Jordan Janota’s rustic, textured scenic design help create a convincing alternate reality just up the road from “The Dukes of Hazard” and around the bend from “Petticoat Junction.”