Dolly Parton’s Toe-Tapping Songs Stand Out in Premiere of ‘9 to 5’
by Jeff Favre
DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES – After only three songs, technical malfunctions stopped the opening night performance of the world premiere musical 9 to 5 for 15 minutes – and the crowd was thrilled.
That’s because the show’s composer, country music legend Dolly Parton, led the audience in a sing-along of the title number, which she wrote for the 1980 movie.
Parton also filled time by introducing her co-stars from the hit film, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dabney Coleman, who were sitting in the audience with her, before the glitches were fixed and the onstage entertainment resumed without incident.
Audiences during the rest of the performances through Oct. 19 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles – or during its planned Broadway run next year – likely will be less forgiving of unexpected stoppages unless Parton is there to save the night.
Still, if all runs smoothly, as the production did two nights later, they should enjoy at least several of the 20 songs, as well as the trio of spirited, sharp lead performances. Weighing in at two-and-a-half hours (not counting the pause), 9 to 5 would be more engaging with some alterations, including cutting a couple of the weaker musical numbers, retooling the sluggish choreography and exorcising the cornball jokes from Patricia Resnick’s book (adapted from her screenplay).
But even with its unevenness, Parton, Resnick, director Joe Mantello and their team offer enough visual and aural treats to hold interest from the raising of the curtain to the final bows.
Following the movie version fairly closely, 9 to 5 opens with its well-known theme song, introducing three women at a large nondescript business in 1979: the all-knowing widow Violet (Allison Janney), who is hoping to break into the all-boys club with a promotion to management; Doralee (Megan Hilty), the well-endowed Southerner with a big heart and doting husband; and newcomer Judy (Stephanie J. Block), whose husband has left her for a younger woman.
The women bond over their disdain for male-chauvinist boss Franklin Hart (Marc Kudisch). A marijuana-induced series of “getting even with the boss” fantasies becomes a reality, thanks to an accidental poisoning and some creative tinkering with a garage door opener.
The other characters of interest are Roz (Kathy Fitzgerald), a nosy administrative assistant in love with Hart, and Joe (Andy Karl), who has feelings for Violet.
The production is at its most vibrant with songs that resemble Parton’s signature style of clever, simple lyrics and toe-tapping melodies. The evening’s highlights are “Tattletales,” about office gossip, and Doralee’s lamenting “Backwoods Barbie,” which appears on Parton’s latest album.
Mantello effectively recreates the movie’s memorable fantasy sequence, using projected images on a large upstage screen and an array of quick costume changes to move from a sassy noir scene to a cowboy hoedown to a Disney-esque wonderland.
Though the entire cast is strong, Hilty – as she did portraying Glinda in Wicked – proves she is one of theater’s brightest young stars. Her comic timing and vocals are impeccable, and she captures the spirit of Parton’s movie performance while putting her personal stamp on Doralee.
Block, who also cemented her reputation in Wicked (as Elphaba), lends her powerhouse voice to Judy’s second-act solo “Get Out and Stay Out.”
Janney, thanks to “The West Wing,” is the most recognizable cast member. Her vocal limitations and poor dance skills are obvious, and the show would be better served by eliminating Violet’s overblown number “One of the Boys.” But her strong acting abilities create a believable Violet, which overshadows her weaknesses.
A notoriously good “bad guy,” Kudisch doesn’t disappoint as the dastardly Hart. He succeeds partially by refraining from making the evil womanizer too buffoonish.
Resnick’s book needs some fine-tuning. She relies too much on hackneyed sex jokes, weak puns and vaudevillian-style humor. A low point comes when poison is dumped onto a plant and it wilts on cue.
Also, Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography serves as little more than a distraction. While there are clear odes to 1970s moves, he repeats ad nauseum the same “Solid Gold” steps without finding ways to make them fresh.
The production’s double-edge sword is Scott Pask’s set. He recreates with remarkable detail the time period’s office look (accented nicely by William Ivey Long’s costumes), but if the automated set changes don’t work, it’s all for naught. It may just be a matter of working out the kinks.
Rough edges are expected with world premieres, though the opening night of 9 to 5 will forever be recalled for its major snafu and Parton’s impromptu singing.
If there are not any future technical issues, L.A. audiences should appreciate the latest movie-turned-musical, though only time will tell if it has the legs to make it long-term on Broadway.
9 to 5 continues through Oct. 19 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 628-2772 or centertheatregroup.org.
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