I understand the appeal of jukebox musicals, which string together well known songs in a theatrical setting.
But I don’t understand the appeal of “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” which is currently at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, in a production directed by co-writer John Foley.
“Pump Boys,” which was on Broadway in 1982 and 1983 (with Foley as a cast member) after starting out off-Broadway, is like a jukebox musical without the hit songs. It takes place in a diner/gas station — a stop on the highway between two small towns in an unnamed state. The four male gas station workers (the pump boys) and two diner waitresses (the dinettes) talk and sing about their lives, with lots of country music clichés and, occasionally, a mild double entendre or a bit of folksy wisdom (“Worry is like a rocking chair: It gives you something to do but it won’t get you anywhere”).
“Taking It Slow” is about the guys’ work philosophy, “Tips” about the thing the waitresses love most about their job. There is a song about wanting to go on vacation (“Vacation”), and one about fishing (“Fisherman’s Prayer”) and … another one about fishing (“Catfish”).
There is no plot, and the song order seems random. After one character sings about how much he loves his grandmother (“Mamaw”), his girlfriend, one of the dinettes, angrily tells him off in the next song (“Be Good or Be Gone”).
The pump boys play guitars, bass and piano, and the dinettes occasionally play other instruments (harmonica, accordion) or add percussion by banging on pots and plates. There’s a little tap dancing, and pump boy Eddie (Sam Weber) clowns around with his upright bass.
This six cast members are all competent performers — Alysha Umphress, the designated belter in the ensemble, is the most impressive, as dinette Rhetta — but the material is so bland, it really doesn’t matter.
The funniest line came from James Barry, as pump boy Jim, at the start of the second act. There was a raffle for an “automobile … air freshener,” and the audience member who won picked the skunk scent.
“May the smell of skunk always remind you of the pleasant day you spent with us,” said Jim, as the audience member left the stage.
“Pump Boys and Dinettes” is at the Paper Mill Playhouse through May 1. Visit papermill.org.