Musical adaptation of the hit film could use a little more '70s flavor, but it provides some good fun
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 plot.
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 better.
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.