'9 to 5: The Musical'

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The opening sound of a clacking typewriter in Dolly Parton's classic song "9 to 5" is probably the most exciting moment in "9 to 5: The Musical," based on the movie from whence it came. Slavishly faithful to the film except for the addition of its new Parton-penned score, this overblown musical is bound to cause a division between critics looking for freshness and audience members all too eager for theatrical comfort food.

Patricia Resnick, credited with the story for the film, wrote the book for the show, which like the original takes place in 1979 and thus eliminates such modern alternatives for its trio of heroines as filing a sexual-discrimination suit.

So again we are presented with the mistreatment of officemates Violet (Allison Janney, subbing for Lily Tomlin), Doralee (Megan Hilty, made up to look just like Dolly) and Judy (Stephanie J. Block in the comparatively drab Jane Fonda role) at the hands of their monstrously abusive and sexist boss, Franklin Hart Jr. (Marc Kudisch, resembling a much beefier Dabney Coleman).

The show signals the witless vulgarity of much of its humor in the opening song, depicting various anonymous figures tiredly preparing for their workday — with one man sporting a prominent morning woody.

The show proceeds to lurch from one scene taken directly from the film to the next, with much of its gags and dialogue recycled seemingly verbatim. There are some additions, including a perfunctory love interest (Andy Karl) for Violet, and the character of Roz, the office toady, has been beefed up (the better to showcase Kathy Fitzgerald's considerable comic talents). But anyone who has watched the film on one of its endless late-night television showings will feel little more than a sense of deja vu.

Parton's songs are, like most of the prolific tunesmith's efforts, eminently catchy and listenable. But few resonate strongly in theatrical terms, with numbers like "Backwoods Barbie" (also the title of her latest album), sounding out of place. At times she seems to be trying too hard, as with "Get Out and Stay Out," a female-empowerment ballad (admittedly sung powerfully by Block) that resembles a slowed-down retread of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive."

The performers are quite fine, but they face serious handicaps. For instance, Janney, who has one of the show's biggest production numbers with "One of the Boys," can't sing or dance at all — no small problem when starring in a big-budget musical. Block has to struggle to define her colorless role, and Hilty, while delightful, is saddled with the unimaginative assignment of doing a Parton impression. Kudisch gets big laughs with his turn as Hart, though he lacks the sly humor exhibited by Coleman that made the character as fun as he was obnoxious.

Also problematic is Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography, clearly inspired by "How to Succeed in Business" and featuring little more than variations of office workers jerking around in formation while going through their duties.

Director Joe Mantello's staging certainly is lavish enough, but the production tends to move in awkward fits and starts. The abrupt ending, for instance, seems mostly indicative of a desire to keep the running time short enough for the bridge-and-tunnel crowd to make their trains and buses. (partialdiff)
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