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Chicago by John Olson

9 to 5: The Musical
Bank of America Theatre

9 to 5 the Musical
Diana DeGarmo, Dee Hoty and Mamie Parris
Much progress had been made in the Women's Rights Movement by 1980, when the feature film 9 to 5 was released. So much that it was time for this satirical farce—in which a trio of secretaries kidnap their chauvinistic and abusive boss—to become a mainstream hit. While I'm not exactly sure why the producers and writers of 9 to 5: The Musical were inspired to re-envision Patricia Resnick's screenplay as a stage musical, they were savvy enough to recognize that the sexist behavior of the boss character, Franklin Hart, wouldn't last ten minutes in any big company these days, and have clearly made the show a period piece set in the late '70s. While they have some fun with this concept, the musical suffers from an identity crisis. Part satire of '70's sexism, part pastiche of '70s fashion and fads, part a story of three women's quest for respect in the workplace, and partly a celebration of Dolly Parton's persona and songwriting, 9 to 5 lacks the sort of strong central idea that would drive the action and make for a satisfying musical.

None of this is to say that when top-rate musical theater talents like Jeff Calhoun (who directed and choreographed the tour) and veteran leading lady Dee Hoty (playing Vi, the role created on screen by Lily Tomlin and on Broadway by Allison Janney) put on a show, it's not going to be a good time. 9 to 5 is a colorful, fast-paced musical, heavy enough on production numbers and performed here by a thoroughly competent cast, and delivers the pleasures of traditional musical comedy. Mr. Calhoun, a protégé of Tommy Tune who danced in Ms. Parton's film version of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, provides athletic, high-kicking dances for his ensemble.

Ms. Parton does better than many other pop songwriters who have attempted to write for musicals. Besides the infectious title tune retained from the movie, her score includes 15 new songs that fall squarely within Broadway musical song categories of opening number, "I want" songs, comedy numbers, a love ballad, and an anthem of self-assertion. The title song which opens the show visualizes office workers dressing and commuting to work (providing an opportunity for some buff dancers to show some skin), and is followed by what is in effect a second opening number, "Around Here," that establishes the office environment. Give Miss Parton some credit for writing an "I want" song for Hart, in which the horny boss sings of what he'd really like from the voluptuous Doralee (Ms. Parton's character from the movie, played here bouncily by "American Idol" finalist Diana DeGarmo). The first act closer, "Shine Like the Sun," is a hopeful anthem for the office workers sung after Hart has been kidnapped by the secretaries; and "Change It" makes for one of the more satisfying production numbers, celebrating the positive changes Vi makes in the workplace while Hart is held captive in his home. The third member of the trio, Judy (the Jane Fonda role) gets the 11:00 number "Get Out and Stay Out," where she finally breaks away from her cheating ex-husband. This high-powered diva ballad of female empowerment is sung forcefully by Mamie Parris, who handles the character's growth from mousy to mighty in charming fashion.

The moments don't all fit together to provide the sort of cathartic journey the best musicals deliver, though. The indistinct point of view is mostly the reason. The satiric bite of the film is largely lost in Calhoun's very broad, burlesque-like direction (excluding Hoty's warm and understated portrayal of Vi). Hart (played by the pleasingly-voiced baritone Joseph Mahowald) is piggish beyond redemption or subtlety. His loyal secretary Roz (Kristine Zbornik) is buffoonishly obsessed with him, to the point that her comedy numbers aren't all that funny. Beyond the three leads and a few other secretaries, the point of view of the ensemble/office workers is unclear. Are they as unhappy as Vi, Doralee and Judy? What's driving them? Are the men as piggish as Hart or are they offended by his behavior as well? Calhoun doesn't slow down long enough to let us know. Resnick's book mostly doesn't adequately earn the emotions that the songs celebrate.

This touring production also seeks to capitalize on the star quality of its songwriter, with a video recording of Dolly providing the opening and closing narrations. DeGarmo does her best imitation of Ms. Parton in between, and on opening night we had the real deal in attendance as Illinois Governor Pat Quinn gave Ms. Parton a proclamation of "Dolly Parton Day," accepted by the famed singer/songwriter on stage.

The '70s kitsch is handled pleasingly. William Ivey Long's costumes exaggerate and satirize the period look—three-piece polyester suits, et al. Kenneth Foy designed the tour's serviceable sets, which seamlessly move between the office (which includes a giant photocopier) and the characters' homes. The curtain is a collage of '70s pop-culture icons—illustrations of Burt Reynolds, Barbra Streisand and the like.

The result is a show that feels all too eager to please, and is willing to do so by any means necessary. It frequently succeeds and probably won't disappoint fans of the movie or Dolly Parton, nor hard-core musical comedy fans in need of a show-business fix.

9 to 5: The Musical will play the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., Chicago, through January 30, 2011. For tickets, visit any Broadway in Chicago ticket office, www.broadwayinchicago.com, call 800-775-2000 or go to any Ticketmaster outlet. For more information on the tour, visit www.9to5themusical.com.


Photo: Joan Marcus

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-- John Olson



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