9 to 5
It seems I’ve done a lot of backtracking in print this year, having to admit how surprised I have been to actually enjoy an evening of musical comedy I’d expected to be as painful as undergoing a colostomy without anesthetic. Does this mean I’m getting older or that musical theatre is finally coming out of its sappy stage and proving it can be as entertaining and cutting-edge as any other theatrical presentation—at least the ones that thankfully avoid any talk of real good clambakes and corn as high as an elephant’s eye?
Such is definitely the case with the pre-Broadway world premiere of Patricia Resnick’s snappy musical adaptation of her beloved classic 1980 film 9 to 5, now filling the Ahmanson with a production as spirited as the trio of unlikely neo-feminist survivors whose madder-than-hell-and-not-gonna-take-it-anymore attitude it celebrates. With a surprisingly infectious score and lyrics created for the show by the film’s original star Dolly Parton, this musical is more than a curious event for LA theatre: it is a show destined for theatrical history once it opens this spring in New York — and when some of the admittedly conspicuous current kinks can be worked out.
Of course, as with any production with the kind of credentials and future plans as this one sports (it will eventually play in Vegas forever, mark my word), there’s little here that is not absolutely first-class. From 9 to 5’s three gifted leading ladies and an outstanding supporting cast, to the imaginative direction by Joe Mantello and design elements that could hardly be improved upon, very little has gone into this production that wasn’t the best producers had to offer.
Scott Pask’s sleekly industrial hydraulically-manipulated set pieces juxtaposed in front of gigantic video “scenery” ingeniously designed by Peter Nigrini in collaboration with legendary eight-time Tony Award-winning lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer is a modern stage marvel, especially since I understand most of the opening night gaffs in its operation have been worked through. No one involved here had any reason to cut corners, obviously, and the deepest of theatrical pockets shows.
Luckily, Resnick’s adaptation of her original screenplay is a winner, although she and her cohorts need to go back and snip away about a third of Act One, including a few repetitious songs that drag things down before intermission. Still, the work is almost done here, Resnick’s script delightfully rife with many pointed references to the “pink-collar ghetto” of the workplace women of the era had to endure way back then, something that sadly hasn’t changed much in the ensuing years. Resnick hits ‘em all, making sly cracks ready to be discovered and appreciated by savvy audiences about some of our country’s less-than admirable setbacks during the last three miserably unjust decades since the hit film was first released.
At one point Violet Newstead (Allison Janney) talks about working 24/7. “What does that mean?” asks Doralee Rhodes (Parton’s original larger-than-life character now played by Megan Hilty and her own larger-than-life chest), to which Violet puzzles a moment before saying, “I don’t know… I just made it up.” And when resident straightman (sorry, no sexism implied here) to that pair of more comedic characters, Stephanie J. Block as Judy Bernly has her best time in the role first created by Jane Fonda when underplaying naïve former housewife’s politically-charged deadpanned lines, such as exhibiting her honest surprise—in 1979, remember—that a head of a company would actually cook his own accounting books to cover up stealing from his stockholders.
Hilty and Block, who starred together here at the Pantages in Wicked, are surely two of the best musical theatre performers around today and the previously non-singing Janney, a musical theatre novice with the chutzpah not to worry about it, is a major asset to this production, striking her best Eve Arden stance rather than trying to conjure the decidedly signature Violet of Lily Tomlin. And when she and her syncopated line of chorusboys charges her way through Violet’s eleventh-hour Roxy Hart number “One of the Boys,” she brings the house down.
Each leading lady is given at least one knockout production number and one heartfelt ballad, as is Mark Kudisch, deliciously odious as the girls’ Bush-like sexist pig of a boss Franklin Hart, Jr. Kathy Fitzgerald as Hart’s lovestruck assistant Roz also has her own showstopper, belting out the hilarious “5 to 9” in the office bathroom’s mirror while wielding a fluttering roll of toilet paper for emphasis. Van Hughes also has some charming moments as Violet’s teenaged son Josh, but his one brief verse of “The One I Love” with three other characters makes us want for more stage time for him.
Still, when it comes to performances, the biggest collective kudos need to go to this amazing assemblage of gifted veteran supporting players, who so energize Consolidated Industries that future Ensemble Cast awards are inevitable. From the very beginning, the elaborately splendid opening “9 to 5” production number, depicting all the workers as they individually wake up, brush their teeth, stretch through their morning woodies, and start to prepare for another boring and disrespectful workday, the “kids” of the chorus are the most fun to watch on the Ahmanson’s massive stage. The uniformly nondescript and non-dancer-looking male members of the ensemble are the biggest treat, few of whom have been chosen to look much like one might expect from the chorus of a big Broadway show. But when these guys start to move, there’s no doubt why they’ve been included in the wonderfully eclectic mix of faces, ages, hairlines and shapes.
Of course, this would have not worked in the slightest if it wasn’t for the true star of the show: the choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler, who won this year’s Tony recently for In the Heights and with 9 to 5 should be right at the front of the line for another one back-to-back. His whimsical, vigorous work never falters, never misses, making the smallest dance to the grandest production numbers—particularly “Dance of Death,” where his versatile charges segue from Stomp Out Loud bangs to Fosse hands to the two-step to the tango without a hitch—perhaps the very best part of 9 to 5.
Add in elaborate special effects to augment the leading ladies’ spiraling dreams and blessedly colorful marijuana fantasies, which meld from projections of sweet Disney cartoon blue birdies to a rousing full-cast homage to the finale of Les Miserables, and musical theatre simply doesn’t get much better than 9 to 5.
9 to 5 plays through Oct. 19 at the Ahmanson, 135 N. Grand Av. in the LA Music Center; for tickets, call 213.628.2772. www.centertheatregroup.org