Friday, May 1, 2009

Workin' 9 to 5-- what a way to make a musical

The past few years have seen a glut of movie-to-musical adaptations hit the Broadway stage, evidently backed by wary producers hoping for a guaranteed hit. This oft-criticized trend has led to mostly mediocre (or downright terrible) shows: the middling Legally Blonde, the universally-panned Young Frankenstein. On this very blog I reviewed Shrek: The Musical, and was maybe a little too kind to it: it was funny, with good performances and high end production values, but the music was utterly forgettable and I can't say that turning that film into a musical was a particularly inspired idea. Maybe musicalizing 9 to 5 wasn't very daring, either, but it does have a secret weapon in the form of Dolly Parton, who played Doralee in the 1980 film and wrote its infectious, Oscar-nominated theme song. She tries her hand at musical songwriting here, and while she may not be the next Andrew Loyd Webber, her story-telling style makes a good, enjoyable fit for Broadway. The theme song has been re imagined as an opening "I want" number for the three lead characters, Violet (Allison Janney), Judy (Stephanie J. Block), and Doralee (Megan Hilty), famously played by Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Parton onscreen. (It also pops up as a lament for boss-loving admin Roz called "5 to 9.") Their "sexist lying egotistical hypocritical bigot" boss, Mr. Franklin Hart (imbued with loads of personality and even charm by Mark Kudisch) gets a couple songs of his own; Roz's big number is among the most entertaining in the entire play. (We always suspected that old biddy was infatuated with Hart, but this showstopping song declares it in spectacular and hilarious fashion.) The book, meanwhile, has been written by the film's co writer Patricia Resnick, who retains all the best lines while adding some brand new zingers (a few of which poke fun at all that's happened in the world since 1979, when this adaptation is set). The basic plot is much the same, with the three wage slaves bonding together to give their tyrannical boss his comeuppance in increasingly zany fashion. (Act one ends with Hart hanging from the ceiling in a specially made harness-- if you've seen the movie you know how he gets there, but for newcomers I won't spoil it.) Some of the additions are unnecessary, like Violet's superfluous love interest (amiable Andy Karl does what he can with an underwritten role). But none of them detract from the quality of the story or its feminist message, which may be a little corny in this context but still holds plenty of relevance. (And while I was a fan of Legally Blonde's scrappy feminism onscreen, I think this production is more honest and inspiring than the dumbed down musical version of that movie.) Some of 9 to 5's best moments, and it has several, are the spoken word scenes with the girls. The uproarious sequence with them smoking a joint together had the audience in hysterics, and the fantasy sequences that followed actually worked better onstage-- in some respects-- than they did in the film. The three leads are hyper-talented, and while Janney is no great singer, her performance is real and bracing, as are those of her costars. Block and Hilton have the musical chops Janney lacks and display them to great effect throughout the production. Judy's empowered ode after she rejects her pathetic ex-husband was a tour de force, and Hilton matches her sassy, Parton-esque delivery with the kind of vocal range that made her predecessor a star. Their chemistry is also undeniable: these really feel like the disparate types of women who often do wind up as the best of friends. Kuditsch also plays off of them well, and is brilliant as the boss; it's a somewhat one-dimensional character type but in this actor's hands Hart is vibrant and fascinating. The large ensemble performs its choreographed dances with vigor (even if the dances don't break any new ground) and the lavish moving set pieces keep the show crackling as we follow the women from the office to the home (be it theirs or their odious boss's). At its heart, 9 to 5 is a celebration of female friendship and female empowerment, and it's those qualities that give this production infinitely more heart than a zillion other gaudy mega-musical wannabes.

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