Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 30, 2009
9 to 5 Music and Lyrics by Dolly Parton. Book by Patricia Resnick. Based on the 20th Century Fox Picture. Directed by Joe Mantello. Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Jules Fisher & Kenneth Posner. Sound design by John H. Shivers. Imaging by Peter Nigrini & Peggy Eisenhauer. Hair design by Paul Huntley & Edward J. Wilson. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Starring Allison Janney, Stephanie J. Block, Megan Hilty, Kathy Fitzgerald, Andy Karl, and Marc Kudisch, with Ioana Alfonso, Timothy George Anderson, Jennifer Balagna, Justin Bohon, Paul Castree, Dan Cooney, Jeremy Davis, Gaelen Gilliland, Autumn Guzzardi, Ann Harada, Neil Haskell, Lisa Howard, Van Hughes, Michael X. Martin, Michael Mindlin, Karen Murphy, Mark Myars, Justin Patterson, Jessica Lea Patty, Charlie Pollock, Tory Ross, Wayne Schroder, Maia Nkenge Wilson, Brandi Wooten.
Of all the direct film-to-stage adaptations of late, 9 to 5 is perhaps the most accomplished and the least surprising. This efficient but uninspiring translation of the 1980 film, which is one of the most brazen - and funniest - stories of female empowerment ever committed to celluloid, has an unusually daunting pedigree. With a book by Patricia Resnick (who wrote the screenplay) and a score by Dolly Parton (who wrote and sang the film’s title song, and appeared in a major role), it’s got an imprimatur most shows can’t dream of. The theatre folk putting it on - director Joe Mantello, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and musical director Stephen Oremus - have gilded credentials of their own.
Unfortunately, none of it is enough to make 9 to 5 feel even remotely necessary. True, much the same could be said of Cry-Baby, Legally Blonde, The Wedding Singer, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Spamalot, the recent Broadway titles to which this one most readily compares. But for good or ill (usually the latter), they toyed with their source material in ways this one - undoubtedly because of its creators’ ties - doesn't dare. That means you get a show that is both the most reverent and the least enlivening in the genre, with most of the intelligence of the film but practically none of its sparkling individuality.
The film depended equally on the dazzling chemistry of its lead quartet (Lily Tomlin, Parton, Jane Fonda, and Dabney Coleman) and Resnick’s zinger-packed, steel-edged screenplay. The actors are not on hand this time around. But because Resnick is, there are plenty of faithful recreations of the scenes, slams, and slurs that made the women elemental forces of object-oriented vengeance and Hart a hatefully lovable wolf in businessman’s clothing. The injection of high-octane action scenes - rapidly spinning dream sequences, gun play, and a tense hospital getaway - ensured that men could endure and enjoy the experience.
The central foursome of the stage version give it a forceful core (if not one that will make you forget the film’s stars), but the musical’s book is less successful. Although still tightly plotted, it’s undergone some subtle but significant changes. Hart has been promoted from vice-president to president of Consolidated, giving him too much power for the women to believably overcome. His “poisoning” and subsequent trip to the hospital, the film’s dramatic anchor, has been made a lark and a misunderstanding, degrading the women’s fortitude when it should be ramping up. A key subplot about Hart’s stealing from the company has been hacked incomprehensibility, and his final fate as well as Violet’s own elevation are now severely overdrawn.
Changed, too, are the coworkers who particularized the film’s office environment. Roz (Kathy Fitzgerald), Hart’s administrative assistant, has gone from being a nosy bootlicker to a familiarly stuffy caricature of the frumpy woman who can’t tell her boss how much she loves him. Others, like the office drunk Margaret, Judy’s family-focused friend Maria, Eddie the upwardly immobile mail boy, and the elusive Chairman of the Board, who charted the women’s progress up the corporate ladder in the movie, are now bit parts played by moonlighting chorus members. One character, the gentle but old-line company president, has been deleted. Another has been added: Joe (a miscast Andy Karl), a junior accountant whose crush on Violet helps soften and feminize her.
That’s exactly the wrong move, and typifies the stage version’s problems. The women need to be as focused and as driven in their way as is the man they’re battling. The film showed, but didn’t dwell on, Violet’s son, Doralee’s husband, and Judy’s ex to show that the trio could - and had to - survive on their own. Resnick’s revision sends the opposite message, making the men more sentimental and making the work environment cutesy and clubby rather than something suffocating and dehumanizing the women can surmount. (Scott Pask’s colorfully sleek sets and William Ivey long’s deceptively garish costumes, the latter of which eerily mirror the film’s clothes, contribute to the confusion.)
As do Parton’s songs. Seen as disconnected pop songs, they’re fine, and will probably result in a country-bubbly cast recording. (Orchestrator Bruce Coughlin, and arrangers Oremus, Alex Lacamoire, Kevin Stites, and Charles duChateau have done their jobs well.) But as theatre numbers, they’re undistinguished. Aside from the driving title song opener (for which Parton has revised some lyrics to establish the major players immediately), almost everything is generic: Violet’s getting-down-to-business “Around Here,” Hart’s lecherous “Here for You” and (senselessly) gospel-like “Always a Woman,” and two arid ballads, “Heart to Hart” for Roz and “Let Love Grow” for Joe and Violet. Of the self-actualization turns, Doralee’s “Backwoods Barbie,” the quartet of songs for the fantasy sequence, the Act I finale “Shine Like the Sun,” and Act II’s “Change It” are exactly what you’d expect.
Only Judy’s 11-o’clock spot, “Get Out and Stay Out,” is legitimately exciting, and then because it’s the only chance Block gets to stretch her stuff. As she proved in The Pirate Queen, The Boy From Oz, and Wicked, she’s an outstanding singer and a limited actress, which makes her journey from know-nothing divorcee to self-sufficiency less satisfying than Fonda’s in the film. Hilty (another Wicked graduate) also has a fabulous voice, but her one-note cowgirly numbers aren’t ideal for her; she brings a real sunniness to Doralee, but is affected and shticky in a way Parton wasn’t. Kudisch is, well, Kudisch, and overdoes his insensitive-guy shtick, but no one overdoes it better.
Janney comes across best, just as Tomlin did: businesslike and smart, cool but passionate. She has the least of the least as far as songs go, but her firm and smoky singing voice and unflinching stage presence - which shock anyone who knows her only from The West Wing - keep her at the forefront of the action.
Neither Janney nor anyone else is always well served by either Mantello’s cheese-spreading direction or Blankenbuehler’s choreography, which is a lot showier and less characterful than the In the Heights dances he won a Tony for last season. They put more gloss than is needed on a story that thrives on being a seismic reshuffling of the natural order, in everyday contemporary terms.
But that’s the style of today’s adaptations. The trick of making musicals used to be to retain works’ original natures, not overturn them; in even today’s more serious efforts (such as Billy Elliot, which opened earlier this season), it seems like most people onstage, offstage, and in the audience, can’t tell the difference between the approaches. 9 to 5, at least, is better than most. But given the experience of everyone involved, it bumps its head too often on quality’s glass ceiling.