On Stage: “9 to 5”

On Thursday night, I got to see the new Broadway musical 9 to 5.  While far from perfect, the show has some good songs (none as memorable as the title track), expert production values, and a handful of enjoyable performances.

The gals of "9 to 5": Stephanie J. Block, Allison Janney, and Megan Hilty
The gals of "9 to 5": Stephanie J. Block, Allison Janney, and Megan Hilty

A faithful translation of the classic 1980 film, 9 to 5 is all about the girl power, telling the story of three friends who set out the get revenge on their misogynistic boss and to change things for the better at the fictional, faceless Consolidated Industries.  The plot isn’t terribly strong, and neither is its focus.  The upstart trio of Violet, Judy, and Doralee are each given so much to do that none of them ever emerges as a main character.  Just when you start to invest in one of them, another comes in and forcefully takes your attention elsewhere.  As such, neither Violet’s chaste flirtation with accountant Joe,  nor Judy’s struggle to be an independent woman, nor Doralee’s attempt to prove herself as more than a pair of double D’s ever come to any truly satisfying conclusion.

Aside from the story, the musical also retains the movie’s most famous asset: Dolly Parton’s music.  Expanding from the title track, the Queen of Country has written all the music and lyrics for the musical herself.  Unfortunately, it’s an obvious credit, as a number of the songs sound exactly the same.  “Backwoods Barbie” is a song that Parton herself could easily perform, written as it is for Doralee, the character she herself portrayed on film.  Her sense of humor shines in the highly amusing “Heart to Hart” and the less memorable “Always A Woman”, both of which borrow more from gospel and R&B than country and bluegrass.  Oddly, the songs that sound most Broadway-friendly, the Act I closer and Judy’s 11 o’clock number “Get Out and Stay Out”, are among the worst.  The latter is painfully derivative of any of the estrogen-fueled anthems in “Wicked”.  Sometimes, less would be more, as in how Dolly has padded the girls’ famous fantasy sequence with over ten minutes of new music that does nothing but unnecessarily drag the scene out.

Janney shines in her Act II number, "One of the Boys"
Janney shines in her Act II number, "One of the Boys"

The show features some good performances.  Megan Hilty is a veritable clone of Dolly Parton as Doralee, with all the necessary charm and guile.  Kathy Fitzgerald steals most scenes she’s in as Roz, the only woman in the workplace loyal to the insufferable Mr. Hart.  As Hart, Mark Kudisch is excellent.  His portrayal of Hart might be labeled caricature if it weren’t for the fact that everyone knows at least two or three men exactly like him.  Andy Karl’s Joe is perhaps the most realistic character in the piece, and he has easy chemistry with on-stage paramour Allison Janney.  It’s Janney’s performance, however, that is perhaps the most remarkable, if only because she is the most unusual Broadway female lead in quite some time.  Neither a trained singer or particularly talented dancer, she is nonetheless a fantastic actress, and as such you can never take your eyes off her.  The character of Violet Newstead may well be the female answer to “My Fair Lady”‘s Henry Higgins in the pantheon of great Broadway characters.  I’m not sure it’s a Tony-worthy performance, but it’s certainly to be applauded.

The costumes by William Ivey Long are appropriate for the setting (Texas at the dawn of the 80’s).  Scott Pask’s outstanding sets whirl and twirl around the stage; if only the rest of the show moved as smoothly.  The massive projection screen that occupies the upstage wall is a nice touch, never overused and appropriate for a show set at the dawn of MTV.  The only design element that doesn’t work, very jarringly so, is Andy Blakenbuehler’s choreography.  His work in In the Heights was a perfect match for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s contemporary urban score; when the same moves (and believe me, they are the same moves) are coupled with Parton’s honky-tonk tunes, it could not ring more hollow.  The choreography doesn’t fit the setting, the music, or the overall style of the show at all.

If you see this one up for grabs at the half-priced booth in Times Square, I’d say take a chance.  Just remember that on a scale of 1 to 10, 9 to 5 only ranks about a 6.

~ T

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