Title: Pump Boys and Dinettes. Playwright: Book, music and lyrics by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann
At: Porchlight Music Theatre at the Ruth Page Auditorium. Tickets: $45-$74; PorchlightMusicTheatre.org . Runs through: Dec. 12
Even in 2021, the auto mechanics are still uniformly male at the Phillips 76 gas depot along North Carolina's Highway 57 between Frog Level and Smyrna, and the proprietors of the adjacent Double Cupp eatery likewise female, but the faces of these roadside angels who cheerfully provide comfort and entertainment to a busload of tourists (that's us, by the way) waiting for their stalled-out vehicle to be repaired are considerably different from those of 1982, when this hymn to Southern hospitality premiered.
Chicago audiences might not have immediately comprehended the significance of Porchlight Music Theatre naming Daryl Brooks, Robert Reddrick and Rueben D. Echoles as, respectively, production director, musical director and choreographer for its revival of the popular country-music revue. However, savvy playgoers recognizing the creative trio long associated with the Black Ensemble Theatre applauded the boldness of Porchlight's response to the call for a more visible range of diversity onstage, as did original composer Jim Wann, who, upon first seeing a photo of the Porchlight cast, replaced the melanin-referencing ditty "Farmer Tan" with a new ode to sunny Florida beaches, then and now.
The changes in cultural dynamics are also manifested in a heightened awareness of the disparate melodic structures at the roots of evolving pop music styles in the 1950s and thereafter. The 12-bar blues tune "Serve Yourself"as rendered by Frederick Harris' barrelhouse piano and Rafe Bradford's growling electric bass, for exampleemerges more Muddy Waters than Elvis Presley. The ardor reflected in Billy Rude's acrobatic flourishes (e.g., behind-the-back finger-picking) in praise of a pretty checkout clerk at the mall simultaneously recalls Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Appalachian ballads dating from 17th-century colonists and unaccompanied gospel chorales also make their appearance in the guises of barbershop and doo-wop harmonies.
What hasn't changed is the predominance of dreams deferred as a major theme in a score rife with driving-tempo odes to the open road, jubilant celebrations of payday revels and womanly ultimatums laid down by the Cupp sisters, who also contribute some lively kitchenware percussion. However, there are also pensive elegies to beloved grannies, solemn supplications to deep-water deities, and lamentations for elusive princes and princesses (including a wistful account of a fleeting moment in the presence of the fairest goddess of them all that will make you cry like an orphan puppy).
Does an evening devoted almost wholly to songs coming one after another compose a concert or a play, and does a 90-minute running time really need an intermission? Who cares? After a year of isolation as gloomy as winter in the Smoky Mountains, who would turn up their masked noses at a motel room (with color TV) on a rainy weekend; a meal of catfish, succotash and sweet potato pie (served with warmth and a smile); or a holiday air freshener won in a raffle?