Give some credit to “9 to 5” — the overinflated whoopee cushion lodged at the Marquis Theater — for bucking this spring’s fashion trends. Can this gaudy, empty musical really be part of the same Broadway season that gave us the minimally decorated, maximally effective “Exit the King,” “God of Carnage,” “Next to Normal,” “Hair,” “Mary Stuart” and “Norman Conquests”?
Those shows strip down to modest sets (three of them use brick walls as backdrops) and, in many cases, small casts, the better to show off their considerable natural assets. But if ingenious austerity has replaced mindless opulence on main-stem stages, no one bothered to alert “9 to 5.”
Dolly Parton and Patricia Resnick’s musical adaptation of the 1980 movie about three women’s revenge on their sexist boss piles on the flashy accessories like a prerecession hedge funder run amok at Barney’s. Staged by Joe Mantello (who directed the fat fairy-tale cash cow “Wicked”), this show feels assembled by an emulous shopaholic who looked around at the tourist-drawing hits of the last decade and said: “I want some of that. And that. Ooh, and can I have that, too?”
The most essential recycled formula being used is one that has met with varying success on Broadway: Take a movie (or alternately, pop song book) with brand-name recognition, then exaggerate with wild, giant strokes whatever made it distinctive originally. In the case of “9 to 5,” this means turning up the volume on something that wasn’t exactly quiet to begin with.
Though released in 1980, the movie, directed by Colin Higgins from a script by Ms. Resnick, feels very much a 1970s artifact. It reflects a time when the feminist movement (or the idea of it) was starting to settle comfortably into suburbia. In portraying three dissimilar women who found sisterhood in bringing down their nasty male employer, the film brought a topical sexual awareness to the classic little-guy-beats-the-boss fantasy. But its jokes and routines were clunky even then, and only the eccentric charisma of Lily Tomlin and Ms. Parton makes it watchable now. (Jane Fonda, playing the most inhibited of the three, gave an unconvincingly inhibited performance.)
The musical “9 to 5,” which overmilks and overmikes tuneful songs by Ms. Parton (who wrote the movie’s popular title number, which is the opener here), is at least blessed with the presence of Allison Janney. This deliciously droll actress is known for playing exceedingly competent people (“The West Wing” on television, “Present Laughter” on Broadway) with much more than mere competence, and her game but dignified professionalism is the show’s biggest asset.
Ms. Janney, as might be predicted, plays the Tomlin role: Violet Newstead, a wry, undervalued office manager. Joining her in the show’s central triumvirate are Megan Hilty as the curvaceous hillbilly secretary Doralee Rhodes (the Parton part) and Stephanie J. Block as the confidence-challenged, newly divorced Judy Bernly (the Fonda character).
Ms. Hilty, who here resembles Loni Anderson more than Ms. Parton, still does Dolly credibly in her line readings and her singing, while Ms. Block is rather wooden in a thankless part. Marc Kudisch takes on the uncomfortable duties of cartoon dartboard as Franklin Hart Jr., the lascivious boss they all loathe.
But this show isn’t about its stars. It’s about turning its feminist revenge story into an occasion for lewd slapstick (which feels about as up-to-date as the 1940s burlesque revue “Hellzapoppin ”) and a mail-order catalog of big production numbers, filtered through that joyless aesthetic that pervaded the 1970s. The show lumbers through its two and a half hours in a blur of heavy moving scenery (by Scott Pask), animated projections (by Peter Nigrini and Peggy Eisenhauer), sour-candy-color lighting (by Jules Fisher and Kenneth Posner) and costumes (by William Ivey Long) that reminds us that the Carter years were the nadir of 20th-century fashion.
The comic sensibility certainly feels vintage, rather in the smirky mode of sitcoms like “Three’s Company.” The governing philosophy seems to be that it’s O.K. to leer if you wink at your own prurience. The opening sequence, which depicts people waking up to the title song, has a man in boxers strutting across the stage with a visible erection.
And while we’re meant to tut-tut when Hart salivates over the buxom Doralee, we are also meant to enjoy his enjoyment. Worse, we are encouraged to laugh when Hart finds himself staring into the less-than-perky bosoms of his sycophantic assistant, Roz Keith (the talented Kathy Fitzgerald).
The dumpy Roz has a sequence in which she communes with her inner red hot mama while visions of a topless (female) dancer and a topless, pec-flexing Hart undulate behind her. This takes place in the women’s bathroom. Ms. Janney has a fantasy number in which she strides past a line of male employees at urinals. (And, yes, there’s the joke of her not shaking the hand of someone who has just zipped up
That’s part of a production centerpiece in which Violet imagines herself as a corporate star, with a backdrop of fawning male dancers and projected headlines, a nod to the “Roxie” showstopper from “Chicago.” But despite Ms. Janney’s authority (never mind that she can’t really sing), the sequence feels ersatz, an extended quotation with no voice of its own.
That’s true of much of the show. Its broad flirtation with tastelessness reminds you of how stylishly Mel Brooks played with brazen vulgarity in “The Producers.” And — oh, dear — there’s even a flying actor sequence à la “Billy Elliot” for the Act I curtain. The Walt Disney “Snow White”-style reverie by a stoned Violet, embroidered on from the movie, is mildly charming, but even it never finds an original groove.
Nor does Ms. Parton’s score, which includes some rockabilly raunch, rhythm-and-blues riffs, a likable song of self-explanation for Doralee (“Backwoods Barbie”) and a standard-issue anthem of empowerment called “Get Out and Stay Out,” which allows Ms. Block to do some “American Idol”-style belting.
The orchestrations infuse everything with instrumental layers that produce a 1970s dance-floor vibe and overwhelm the simpler charms of Ms. Parton’s melodies. Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography embodies the same sensibility, with jutting, strutting disco moves applied to everything, sometimes wittily and sometimes to sinister, robotic effect, suggesting a hybrid of “Saturday Night Fever” and the grim office melodrama “Machinal.”
Come to think of it, it’s been quite a year for the 1970s on Broadway, what with the R. D. Laingian “Equus” (in the revival starring Daniel Radcliffe) and the imported Old Vic production of Alan Ayckbourn’s “Norman Conquests” trilogy. By the way, if you’re really interested in how the self-conscious sexual openness of that time transformed everyday lives, then “Conquests” is the ticket to buy.
Seen in conjunction with “9 to 5,” Mr. Ayckbourn’s comedies also offer an interesting lesson in the relativity of time in the theater. Though it takes seven hours to perform the three “Conquests” plays, it all seems to pass in a twinkling. At the intermission of “9 to 5,” I looked at my watch (at 9:30) and was surprised we hadn’t hit midnight.
It's been a busy and fairly eclectic spring on Broadway, so it seems fitting that the season should wind down with the two very different shows that opened Thursday night: a revival of the Samuel Beckett's classic Waiting for Godot and a new musical adaptation of the frothy feminist film romp 9 to 5.
Those who prefer absurdity to absurdism will get some kicks out of 9 to 5 (* * ½), the latest musical lifted from a beloved screen chestnut. For those who haven't seen the movie, released nearly 30 years ago, it follows three working women driven to extreme measures by their boss, Mr. Hart, a lecherous, foul-mouthed capitalist pig — and those aren't even his most loathsome qualities.
The libretto, adapted by Patricia Resnick from her original screenplay, has a populist bent that, if timely, can take on a self-conscious earnestness. But she has also retained a flair for wry, cheeky humor that is well served by the cast — particularly Allison Janney, who deftly fills Lily Tomlin's shoes as long-suffering office manager Violet Newstead. Janney may not have a mellifluous singing voice, but her delectably tart delivery, of songs as well as dialogue, is one of the production's two strongest assets.
Marc Kudisch's divinely dastardly Hart is the other. If there were a Tony Award for best sport, Kudisch would be a leading contender; his villain is bound, lassoed, shot and poisoned — and that's just in a Disney-themed hallucination sequence that's one of director Joe Mantello's more inspired touches.
Some of the goofiness feels more gratuitous, though Dolly Parton's original songs tend to be quite forthright. Predictably, the country icon — who co-starred with Tomlin and Jane Fonda in the movie — has injected plenty of twang into the score. But there are also ballads that wouldn't be out of place in most contemporary, pop-influenced musicals and even a nod to '70s funk.
The tunes are served with dutiful virtuosity by Megan Hilty and Stephanie J. Block, who respectively play blond bombshell Doralee Rhodes, Hart's sweet-but-tough secretary (Parton's old role), and Judy Bernly, a meek housewife forced to seek employment when her husband dumps her (Fonda's part).
At a recent preview, Block nearly stopped the show with a song called Get Out and Stay Out— directed at her ex, though she would have pleased the crowd equally belting it out to Hart. If seeing Y-chromosome-addled cartoon characters get their due is your idea of an empowering experience, or at least a good time, 9 to 5 has your number.
The principal asset in "9 to 5: The Musical" is unquestionably the beloved screen property on which this eager-to-please adaptation is based. The popular 1980 fem-powerment farce about three renegade secretaries who turn the tables on their chauvinistic boss was driven by three iconic performances, and the women who step into those heels here do dandy work re-creating those characters with enough freshness to rise above mere imitation. If the material showcasing the trio is an uneven cut-and-paste job that struggles to recapture the movie's giddy estrogen rush, plenty of folks will nonetheless find this a nostalgic crowd-pleaser.
The other big ace up the show's sleeve is Dolly Parton. Regrettably, the Tennessee sparrow isn't actually up there onstage, but she's creditably channeled by Megan Hilty in the Doralee role, from the boobs-and-bouffant look to the twangy vocals, downhome charm and disarming pluckiness.
As composer-lyricist of the country-flavored pop score, Parton is a significant presence as well, not just in the evergreen title tune but particularly in a handful of new songs. The wry self-validation of "Backwoods Barbie," the delicate optimism of "I Just Might," the upbeat resilience of "Shine Like the Sun" and take-charge attitude of "Change It" all reveal the songwriter's authentic personality, and "9 to 5" is at its most winning when these numbers focus attention squarely on the women battling for a fair deal in an unequal-opportunity environment.
However, other key creative elements are hit and miss. Patricia Resnick's book wisely conserves the movie's best jokes and sticks to the 1979 setting. But the antic plotting lacks flow, and the additions -- a love interest for lead steno-pool mutineer Violet (Allison Janney); hindsight digs at the era's innovations; a more forcefully articulated emancipation agenda to muscle up the ending -- are fairly pedestrian. It's hard not to assume the real heart of the script came from the film's director and co-screenwriter, the late comedy genius Colin Higgins, who gave us "Harold and Maude."
Director Joe Mantello and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler bring their own set of problems. Associations with Mantello's megahit "Wicked" may be unintended (both Hilty and Stephanie J. Block, who plays the Jane Fonda role, Judy, are alumnae witches), but "9 to 5" gets strident at times in remixing that show's girl-power formula. Block is stirring as she amps up into "Get Out and Stay Out," Judy's gutsy reclamation of pride and rejection of her wayward husband, but you almost expect her to grab her broom and defy gravity. Worse are the crude sight gags.
Blankenbuehler's "In the Heights" moves were an organic physical expression of those characters' desires. Here, his slinky dance idiom is out of sync with the comic tone. His fussy scene segues, coupled with the cumbersome hydraulic shifting of panels, pillars, desks and overhead lighting tracks in Scott Pask's busy office set, inhibit momentum and crowd the characters.
Maybe audiences want to see major movables onstage, but the show's most satisfying moments come when the hardware is stripped away and it's just the characters, backed by Peter Nigrini and Peggy Eisenhauer's period-evocative projection wall or bathed in Jules Fisher and Kenneth Posner's pastel-toned lighting. Less is often more here.
Pask's most playable set is the office of obnoxious boss Franklin Hart Jr. (Marc Kudisch), where he puts the moves on Doralee and her double Ds until she turns cowgirl on his ass. Kudisch is a hilarious and oddly lovable scoundrel as the "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot" who fuels the women's revenge fantasies, and his comic chemistry with the irresistible Hilty is especially sharp. Block tends to recede in book scenes but aces the vocals.
Kathy Fitzgerald earns laughs as Franklin's besotted spy Roz; her "Heart to Hart" number is foiled by dubious staging (with dancers in Roz drag emerging from bathroom stalls), but her wistful "5 to 9" again shows the strengths of Parton's work in quieter mode.
The invaluable Janney juggles acerbity and warmth with flair in the Lily Tomlin role. She's no great singer but is frequently buffered by the superior pipes of her co-stars and handles solo duties with assurance and decent pitch. Violet's splashy "One of the Boys" is a knowingly cheesy late-'70s-style showstopper that recalls Lauren Bacall sashaying and barking through numbers in "Woman of the Year." More precisely, it conjures 1981 stalker pic "The Fan," with Bacall playing an actress in a doozy of a show called "Never Say Never," an unintentionally funny hymn to bad Broadway.
The pleasures of "9 to 5" are less guilty, but they're also less satisfying than they should be. The promising material and terrific performers are too often sold short by clumsy story-building, overwhelming sets and unfocused direction.