By Charles McNulty
Times Theater Critic
September 23, 2008
Not since "Wicked," the cheeky prequel to "The Wizard of Oz," has a show overflowed with so much musical-comedy promise. But this Broadway-bound production, which had its world premiere Saturday at the Ahmanson Theatre, has only occasional success in switching on the old fluorescent-lit office magic.
Dolly Parton, one of the movie's stars and the composer-lyricist of its still-percolating "9 to 5" title track (used here as the opening and closing numbers), has contributed a fresh if patchy score that mixes country and pop with show-tune garnish. And Patricia Resnick, who co-wrote the screenplay with the film's director, Colin Higgins, has recycled the old punch lines in her book, which reassembles the giddy plot even if it can't conjure the same rebellious spirit.
Audiences who just want to have nostalgic fun will no doubt find this return to the scheming secretarial pool a laugh riot. But this equal-rights fairy tale, directed by Joe Mantello (the wizard behind "Wicked") in a manner that compulsively gooses the material with bawdy innuendo, makes clear that, though we may have come a long way, baby, we've taken a few steps backward in our ability to create thoughtful musical entertainment.
The original trio of Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Parton is hard to beat. But the casting isn't the trouble here.
Stephanie J. Block, a "Wicked" alum who made a Broadway splash playing Liza Minnelli in "The Boy From Oz," has pipes to spare and a gift for comic shorthand. As Judy Bernly (Fonda's role), the recently divorced and easily frazzled employee-in-training, she has some of the show's few genuinely moving moments. To see her confidence plunge like last week's stock market as a dragon-like copy machine jams is to give your heart over to a woman who is perpetually on the verge of a breakdown.
As Doralee Rhodes, the countrified executive assistant squeezed into body-hugging dresses, Megan Hilty transforms herself into a Dolly Parton dynamo. With a voice that's as adept at bluegrass as it is at belting and with the same crack timing she deployed in the L.A. production of "Wicked," she's almost too good to be relegated to a madcap Double-D impersonation, delightfully winning though it may be.
And last but not least, Allison Janney, in the role of the brainy, always passed-over Violet Newstead (whom Tomlin played with brisk conspiratorial wit), may not be a natural stage singer. But she has that delectable ironic languor that earned her a mantelpiece of Emmys on "The West Wing," and she manages to deliver the goods in her big cabaret reverie, "One of the Boys."
Once again for a newly minted musical, the storytelling proves to be the major flaw. Not that the material, which is set in the Carter era (as William Ivey Long's costumes never let you forget), seems dated. The problem is that Resnick hasn't figured out how to stay true to the film's commercially packaged radicalism while bouncing between gag-ridden spoof and sentimental songs.
The book is lumpy in the overlong first half and curiously rushed in the second. Too much time is spent on the boss' lascivious antics. Marc Kudisch, a likable Broadway regular, is allowed to play Franklin Hart Jr. as a hormonally deranged adolescent, leaving one longing for Dabney Coleman's more restrained dastardly turn. And the more the piece dwells on the women's lives out of the office, the more this farcical mutiny devolves into a soap opera.
On Saturday's opening-night performance, that first act was longer than usual. The late start was understandable, as Parton made her way to her seat amid thunderous applause. But a lengthy delay, caused by technical issues that have plagued the production during previews, required Parton to grab a microphone, introduce Fonda and Tomlin and charmingly lead the audience in a "9 to 5" singalong.
Parton isn't a Broadway baby, but there's a reason she's sold more than 100 million records worldwide. Sweet, straight-from-the-heart ballads are her specialty, not just as a singer but as a composer, and she brings much finesse to their writing here. Unfortunately, they don't tend to advance the musical's emancipatory theme, and at least one of them ("Let Love Grow") should be cut on grounds of cliché abuse.
Yet there's an amiable quality to her sound on stage. No, "Shine Like the Sun" doesn't work lyrically as a first act exclamation point. And when she ventures beyond her usual palette -- for example, "Mundania," Hart's droning lament after he's been kidnapped by the ladies -- the results can be questionable.
But Parton's range includes cute comedy, wistful melody and even the power-ballad "Get Out and Stay Out," which Block dynamically performs as a testament to Judy's growing self-esteem. And who could resist that foot-stomping theme song, which energizes the audience like a strong cappuccino?
Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler's vibrant opening sequence features urban dwellers rubbing the sleep out of their eyes as they set out on their morning commutes. Nothing else is quite as exuberant. Not even in the marijuana-induced fantasies in which the trio envision ways of offing Hart does the musical staging (kudos to Scott Pask's mobile office design) spring to this buoyant level.
In terms of box office, "9 to 5" has the potential to rescue the next big bank failure. But Parton and her team are going to have to work overtime to transform this dish, popular though it will surely be, into something more than theatrical comfort food.
"9 to 5: The Musical." Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 19. $30 to $100. (213) 628-2772. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.
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