The Forum Theatre Company wants to make its season opener as welcoming as the greasy spoon and service station where it’s located.
“I think there’s a desire for audiences and people to reconnect with basics, and that’s what this does,” producing artistic director Kathryn Page Hauptman says of “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” which opens this week.
“There’s nothing more basic than this show – good friends, good food, good music. That human connection that we all have, that we want to have,” added Hauptman, co-directing “Pump Boys” with Gigi Gans.
“Pump Boys and Dinettes” is set in the 1970s along a lazy stretch of U.S. 57 in northern North Carolina, “between Frog Level and Smyrna.” The four Pump Boys run a service station that’s across from the Double Cupp Diner, operated by sisters Rhetta and Prudie Cupp.
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The bluegrass-tinged country music score includes songs such as “Fisherman’s Prayer,” “Farmer Tan,” “Caution: Men Cooking,” “Be Good or Be Gone” and “The Night Dolly Parton was Almost Mine.”
“The harmonies are really gorgeous,” Hauptman said of the music, directed by Tim Raymond, which includes some four- and six-part harmony.
The show premiered off Broadway in 1981 and moved to Broadway the next year. It’s unique in Broadway shows – in a trend followed decades later by shows such as “Company” and “Sweeney Todd” revivals – where the actors also play their own instruments on stage.
“There’s very little dialogue and very little plot,” Hauptman said. “It was originally conceived as a concert, and that’s pretty much the way it’s been done ever since.”
Playing instruments proved to be various levels of challenges for the cast.
“I’ve never had to do all three (playing, singing and acting) in the same time in this way,” said Leslie Alan Coates, who plays commitment-phobe Jackson, the object of affection for Rhetta Cupp (played by Jen Bechter). “It’s changed my learning process. It kind of derailed me for a while.”
Katie Riggs plays Prudie, giving her a chance to play guitar on stage for the first time.
“That’s the scariest part, but also exciting because I want to be a guitarist and not just a singer,” Riggs said.
“We’re all learning something new in this production,” Betcher said. “There are a lot of elements that are new to me, or at least have been put into the back of the closet for a long time.”
Stephen Hitchcock and Ted Dvorak, who play Pump Boys L.M. and Eddie, respectively, aren’t scheduled to play instruments on stage, but an unseen guitar, bass and drums are set to back them up.
While the familiarity of the characters is echoed in the cast – Bechter, Riggs, Hitchcock and Dvorak all performed together in various combinations at Wichita State University – the Forum’s guest artist is a veteran of the piece.
“It’s about having a good time with good people,” said Kansas City-based J. Clayton Winters, who also played Jim at the Great Plains Theatre in Abilene last year. “The show breaks that fourth wall immediately, so it’s literally about having a good time with the audience. Instead of watching the story, they take part in the story. We’ll be talking to them and dancing with them and who knows what else.”
Winters grew up loving both theater and country music, but was unaware of “Pump Boys and Dinettes” until the show was offered to him last year.
“It’d never been on my radar,” Winters said. “Now it seems it’s all over the place.”
“Pump Boys” was most recently performed in Wichita in 2011 at the Crown Uptown, and hadn’t been done locally for 20 years before that.
“It’s an exciting show that has heart and soul in it,” Betcher said.
PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES’
When: Through Oct. 15; performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays
Where: Wilke Center, First United Methodist Church, 330 N. Broadway, Wichita
Tickets: $23 for Thursdays and Sundays, $25 for Fridays and Saturdays; available through the website www.forumwichita.com or by calling 316-618-0444