At one point during the performance of “9 to 5: The Musical,” Dolly
Parton’s face is projected onto a screen, beseeching the audience, essentially,
to spread the good word about the show if they liked it, and if they didn’t, to
keep their big mouths shut. But Dolly, what if I mostly liked it but still
found some room for improvement? Can I tell the people to go see it but cut it
some slack? I was certainly willing to give it a little wiggle room. I mean, as
a red-blooded American, you can’t not love Dolly Parton.
And her DNA is all over this project. True, the movie on
which this is based was Parton’s first foray into motion pictures, hardly
making it “her” movie. But her hourglass figure, down-home earnestness and raw
talent made helped propel this to be the No. 1 comedy of 1980 and made Parton
an instant breakout movie star. (Did you know Jane Fonda was actually the star
of the movie? The ladies in front of me couldn’t remember.) But Parton wrote
all the music for this stage version and it’s her avatar Doralee who is the
heart of the show. Of course, it’s also her infectious title track serving as
the theme for seemingly half the songs.
It’s certainly not the acting or the music that keep this
good musical from being great, although there were a couple of less-than-rousing
numbers, and you wonder why none of the songs went the disco or twangy country spoof
route, given that the movie was set in the pop culture wasteland of 1979.
Similarly, the minimal set design could have benefitted from wallowing a little
more in the awfulness that was par for the course for interior decoration at
the time. Really, not a single lime-green or brown-plaid color scheme? And the
clunky additions to the original script are more groan-inducing than wink-and-nod-inspiring,
including throwaway jokes about Enron, “Dallas” and “new” office terms such as “casual
Friday” and “24/7.” But that all takes back seat to the female-empowerment
Violet Newstead (Dee Hoty), the queen bee of the secretaries
at Consolidated Companies, is saddled with hapless newbie Judy Bernly (Mamie
Parris), who is struggling to start anew after her old life is swept out from
beneath her by a philandering husband. Meanwhile, office pariah Doralee Rhodes
(Diana DeGarmo) fights off the advances of self-proclaimed “sexist,
egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” and CEO Franklin Hart, Jr. (Joseph
Mahowald). The system built to keep these women from achieving any level of
success is the very thing that leads them to join forces, quit their bitching
and do something about it. The serendipitous introduction of a doobie serves as
the catalyst that gets the ladies as high as kites — and starts their
fantastical revenge schemes cooking.
As Doralee, the big-haired, buxom, squeaky-twanged object of
Hart’s lust, DeGarmo doesn’t merely impersonate Parton: she expertly recreates
Parton’s original portrayal, yet still effectively makes the character feel
fresh. DeGarmo takes nothing for granted, really working to make us believe
that she’s got a heart of gold pounding behind that ample bosom and an actual
brain humming beneath that blond wig. Her hypnotic stage presence and
out-of-this-world voice demand your full attention at all times.
Mahowald has the leading man swagger and tenor down pat (not
to mention a killer ‘70s porn ‘stache and sideburns), but needs to loosen up a
little and have some fun with the physical comedy aspects of the show. It’s a
comedy! It’s OK to do spit takes, pratfalls and scrunch up that handsome mug of
yours into the occasional grimace.
Parris, meanwhile, as our eyes and ears into the world of 1979
office life, is disappointingly conservative with her role, with two key
exceptions. The scene in which her character gets stoned and describes a metaphysically
intricate vision she’s having is a slice of comic gold (and drew knowing laughs
from one corner of the audience), but it is her timber-rattling “Get Out and
Stay Out” late in Act II, a smoldering torch song reminiscent of “And I Am
Telling You I’m Not Going,” that cements her status as part of the power trio. We’d
heard her harmonizing with her costars, but that song is the first time we hear
that truly impressive big voice come out of that little lady.
And in the good-things-come-from-strange-places department,
Kristine Zbornik as Hart’s bookish minion Roz has the audience howling
throughout “Heart to Hart,” her showstopping ode to the unrequited love she has
for her boss. Her decidedly un-coquettish dance of seduction is an epic fail and
a work of uproariously slapstick fun. Michael Scott couldn’t have done it
Bottom line: “9 to 5” is a genuinely fun show, albeit with a
few flaws. The last thing I need is the wrath of Dolly Parton upon me.