Dolly Punches In to Broadway

By Mike Diamond

Originally published on Advocate.com May 21 2009 12:00 AM ET

A curtain of telephone cords rises to the sound of alarm clocks and the familiar opening beat of Dolly Parton's Oscar-nominated title song. Dancers in very late disco-era styling -- striped tube socks, moustaches, wrap skirts, and a surplus of feathered hair (there was surely an army of curling irons backstage) pantomime the transition from slumber and morning coffee to working-stiff drudgery. The number itself, with some minor tweaking, makes a successful transition to musical theater and the dancers are very energetic; never have work-weary office drones had such a bouncy "Up With People" joie de vivre.

Soon enough the action moves to the suitably gray- and beige-toned offices of Consolidated, and enter the three main characters of 9 to 5: The Musical: mousy, first-time worker Judy Bernly (Stephanie J. Block), wry single mom Violet Newstead (Allison Janney), and sexy country gal Doralee Rhodes (Megan Hilty).

If you are one of the .00001% of gays who has never seen the 1980 movie (shame on you!), the basic story goes like this: The three ladies engage in a battle of the sexes with their boss, Franklin Hart Jr. (Marc Kudisch), a "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot." Put upon, passed over, and fed up, the women bond over shared anger as well as some very strong marijuana. There Sis an accidental poisoning of the boss. Hilarity ensues.

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And it does, for the most part; most of the funny bits and dialogue from the film have been transplanted to the stage verbatim. Allison Janney in particular deftly handles sarcastic Violet's wisecracking one-liners with impressive timing and restraint. Her performance has vague echoes of Lily Tomlin's (who played the role in the film), but she puts her own unique, somewhat more frazzled spin on it.

As Doralee, Hilty is a crowd favorite, spunky and sassy, and has somewhat of a challenge as she is playing not just the role Parton made famous in the movie, but truly Parton herself. From the boobs to the hair to the chirpy twang, it borders more on impersonation than acting, but all to the good. Hilty is cheerful and soulful in just the right combination. She has Parton's vocal inflections down pat.

Stephanie J. Block's Judy is somewhat less impressive. While it's true that Block portrays the most uptight, least interesting member of the trio, her rigid acting style keeps the audience at a distance.

Special mention must be given to Marc Kudisch. As the evil counterpoint to the show's three main stars, his Mr. Hart is hilariously chauvinistic (how's that for a retro phrase?), and Kudish handles the physical comedy of the role with amazing dexterity. He also happens to be sexy as hell if you like that Tom-of-Finland-style piggish-CEO look. And I do!

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The show's music is hit-or-miss. The title song is a no-brainer and works especially well in the country-gospel revival-feeling final reprise. Parton, the composer and lyricist, certainly knows how to turn a phrase, and the act 1 songs "Backwoods Barbie," "Heart to Hart," (brava to Kathy Fitzgerald as snitchy corporate kiss-ass Roz Keith!), and "Shine Like the Sun" are standouts. Mostly, though, the tunes serviceable but forgettable, and act 2 is weighed down by some real clunkers, particularly the saccharine "Let Love Grow." And was it really necessary to give Violet a love interest? Janney really can't sing, but it works; she comes across as somebody's goofy Mom. Hilty has a charming sound to her voice, and Block redeems herself with a powerful set of pipes.

9 to 5: The Musical is a worthy if simple addition to the "let's turn a movie into a stage show!" trend on Broadway, sure to please the hordes of middle-aged Midwestern tourists. While the story still resonates as a potent feminist revenge fantasy, this a Dolly Parton baby through and through -- boob jokes, sequins, and smiles overshadow the sociopolitical subtext. Shout out to costume designer William Ivey Long; the outfits in the pot-induced homicidal dream scene are fabulous, particularly in Doralee's cowgirl sequence.

A thought-provoking, soul-stirring night at the theater this ain't -- there are sparkly costumes, moving sets, a large video-screen backdrop, moustachioed dancing boys doing somersaults -- but so what? Subtlety is not the point here. 9 to 5: The Musical is two hours and 20 minutes of silly, feel-good, somewhat familiar song and dance. Time to make the doughnuts!

At the Marquis Theatre Music and Lyrics by Dolly Parton Book by Patricia Resnick Directed by Joe Mantello Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler