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Still Workin'

Still Workin'


Gay fans flock to the premiere of 9 to 5 at Los Angeles's Ahmanson Theatre to see Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin -- and end up staying for an excellent show.

It's the opening night of 9 to 5 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles and all the gays are out. I run into producer Dan Jinks, whose film Milk will be released in November; the handsome as always Robert Gant; producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan (Hairspray); and even the young actor Mitch Morris (Another Gay Movie).

Who would have thought the opening of a show about three working women dealing with sexism and office politics in the '80s, camp though it may be, would be one of the biggest gay events of the year? And then in walks Dolly Parton and I realize instantly why they have all come. Standing barely five feet tall -- though her stilettos and one of the most complicated wigs I have ever seen are helping her height a great deal -- she commands the room. She takes her seat amid a standing ovation. Another burst of applause erupts when Lily Tomlin dashes in at the last minute. Jane Fonda, on the other hand, had arrived early in her tasteful suit and tinted eyeglasses, and had been milling around for about 30 minutes by showtime.

The musical is a success. Allison Janney heads up the cast as Violet Newstead, the role originated by Lily Tomlin in the 1980 film. While her singing alone would not take her far in musical theater, her comedic timing more than makes up for any vocal shortcomings, which are masked for the most part by letting her sing behind other voices -- you won't be hearing her belt any ballads. In the role of the conservative Judy Bernly -- whose divorce has forced her back into the working world, only to end up helping her find herself -- is Stephanie J. Block, fresh from the role of Elphaba in the Broadway cast of Wicked, and she has the Idina Menzel-style voice to prove it. But stealing the show is Megan Hilty as Doralee Rhodes, the role originated by Parton. Her performance is less an impersonation of Parton than an homage, but hearing her speak takes you right back to the film. Parton wrote the music and lyrics for the show, and every scene with Doralee is self-referential to Parton, whose presence makes it all the more inside baseball.

Stars of the original film, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin

Fifteen minutes into the show the curtain comes down and a technical problem regarding the set is announced over the PA. After a few minutes Parton come onstage and grabs the microphone to address the audience. "I don't know what else to do but sing '9 to 5,' " she announces. She strikes up the band for an impromptu performance, enlisting the audience's help for the chorus. When the song is over and the set is still "stuck," she decides to deliver the speech she was planning for the end of the night. She thanks screenwriter Pat Resnick, who also wrote the book for the musical, and Jane Fonda, who originated the idea for the movie, for including her in the first place, and points out costars, including Martin Mull, who have also come out for the performance. When there is still time to kill she decides to sing "I Will Always Love You," and I'm sure that by this point the audience is happy to have that set stuck for as long as possible, but before she can start they are ready to go again, so it's back to the show.

The set is very complicated; it's easy to see how it can get stuck. And while the concept of women oppressed in the workplace, with Violet dreaming of a female CEO, may seem a little dated in a post-Carly Fiorina world, the idea of a corporation exploiting its workers and the feeling that one can never get ahead should play well in today's economy. While the standout numbers are country and western, Parton's songwriting has broad appeal, writing catchy hooks, ballads, and reprises with the best of them. Like The Drowsy Chaperone before it, this should be another Los Angeles-born show bound for Broadway.

Dancing With the Starsstar Lance Bass

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