Friday, May 1, 2009

Punching the Clock

9 to 5
Music and lyrics by Dolly Parton
Book by Patricia Resnick
Directed by Joe Mantello
Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler
Starring Alison Janney, Stephanie J. Block, Megan Hilty, Marc Kudish, Kathy Fitzgerald

Performances began April 7, 2009

Marquis Theatre
1535 Broadway

Hilty, Janney and Block in 9 to 5 (photo: Joan Marcus)
The musical 9 to 5 will probably be an audience hit, if the raucous response at the preview I attended is any indication. And why not? It's got songs by Dolly Parton, it's based on the 1980 hit comic film starring Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, and it stars Alison Janney in a delightful comic turn. It's good-natured, goofy and glitzy—but alas, it's not very good.

The movie, which became a rallying cry for women in the workplace, for its time (end of the Carter era and beginning of the Reagan decade) had an enlightened stance on the end of the ingrained sexism in the male-led industries. Patricia Resnick, who wrote the movie’s script, has also penned the musical's book, whose setting is "1979 or thereabouts," allowing for not very funny jokes about such cultural relics as Atari.

Parton's songs run the short gamut from the anthemic title song and nearly-as-anthemic "Change It" to country-tinged tunes like "Backwoods Barbie" and "Cowgirl's Revenge," from sappy ballads like "Let Love Grow" to rousing finales like Act I's "Shine Like the Sun." Director Joe Mantello’s frenetic pace is highlighted by Andy Blankenbuehler's equally frenzied choreography throughout the show, as actors and dancers run and dance on and off the stage, as if such continuous activity would mask the silly book, thin music, and shallowness of the entire enterprise. Similarly, nearly all of the songs have been transformed into would-be showstoppers—whether they are belted or crooned—which lessens whatever minor impact they might have had in the proper context.

9 to 5 doesn’t work simply because the onstage desperation is palpable. Scott Pask's clever scenery would make more of an impression if it weren’t raised or lowered or moved on or off so quickly, while William Ivey Long's tongue-in-cheek costumes and Jules Fisher and Kenneth Posner's droll lighting fare better. What hurts most is that the actors are stuck playing caricatures made famous by better-known movie stars. Stephanie J. Block has a terrific singing voice but none of Jane Fonda's charisma, while Megan Hilty partially overcomes doing a strict Dolly Parton impersonation with her witty stage manner. Marc Kudish is having an obvious blast as the big, bad, sexist boss kidnapped by his three female assistants; while he's not a natural comedian like Dabney Coleman—who easily stole the movie—he stamps his signature solo numbers, "Here for You" and "Always a Woman," with palpable enthusiasm.

Only Alison Janney escapes her predecessor, Lily Tomlin, to create a notable comic portrait of a woman who becomes empowered by subduing her boss to secure her rightful place in the executive board room. A terrific comic actress, she can fling hilarious salvos around with no apparent effort; although not really a singer, Mantello, Parton and music director Stephen Oremus make sure she never sings alone that often, and her theatrical savvy allows her to put over her solo spotlights—the pseudo-Disney "Potion Notion" and the boardroom fantasy "One of the Boys"—with a skill that belies their derivativeness.

In sum, 9 to 5 may fill the tiny void left by other movie-musical pastiches like Legally Blonde and Hairspray, but that’s about it.

originally posted on

No comments: