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'Pump Boys' promises heartfelt visit to simpler times

| Friday, June 14, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
Mountain Playhouse
The 'Pump Boys & Dinettes' cast at Mountain Playhouse includes (from left) John Ozinga, Carrie Tillis, Chris Blisset, Martin Landry, Amanda Ryan Paige and Larry Tobias.

Those who long for the “good old days” of roadside dinettes and full-service gas stations will find much to enjoy in “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” the country-style musical that opens the summer season at the Mountain Playhouse in Jennerstown.

Drawing on the nostalgia of the 1950s through the early 1980s, the show centers on the musical aspirations of Eddie, Jim, L.M. and Jackson, four men who work at a rural gas station on Highway 57, and the two Cupp sisters, Prudie and Rhetta, who run the Double Cupp dinette next door. The four guys and two women form a country-western revue. The guys play traditional instruments while the gals play percussion on kitchen utensils.

“It shows vignettes of life along the side of the road in rural America, in a simpler, less complicated time than we live in now,” says director Larry Tobias. “It was a time when you could get your car fixed at a gas station and the waitress at the diner could fill you in on the local gossip.”

In addition to directing the show, Tobias plays Jim, one of the Pump Boys.

“I enjoy the interaction with the audience,” he says. “Everybody in the theater, including the cast, the crew, the audience and the theater staff leave the theater feeling better than they did before. It's very genuine, very heartfelt.”

Because every cast member must sing, dance and play musical instruments in addition to acting, Tobias had to assemble a cast of multitalented performers. “First and foremost, it is a country music musical, so I had to find people who are accomplished musicians,” he says.

One of those is Carrie Tillis, daughter of legendary country singer Mel Tillis. She plays Rhetta Cupp, a waitress with a sense of humor.

“She's got a lot of heart,” Tillis says. “She works really hard at her job and she's proud of what she does.”

This is Tillis' second time acting in the show, and she says that doing it again “was a no-brainer. It's well-written; it's a funny show. The characters steal your heart away from you with their humor.”

Although original country music is at the heart of the production, musical director Chris Blisset has found that the show's songs transcend the genre.

“It's a very pleasant mix of folk, rock and country. It's toe-tapping music,” he says. Two of his favorite numbers are “Mamaw,” which he describes as “a beautiful country ballad,” and “Drinkin' Shoes,” “a fun song about what we do on a Friday night.”

“You're going to leave humming the songs,” Tillis says. “That's what theater does — it transports us to another place for a few hours, and it's a good place.”

Cynthia Bombach Helzel is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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