May 9, 2009

"9 to 5" Works Hard But the Sweat Shows

My grandmother liked to say that one man's meat is another man's poison. I often think about that as I read theater reviews. Because critics see a lot more shows than the average theatergoer and what appeals to them isn’t always the same as what might appeal to folks who only get to the theater a few times a year. Most of the critics loved the theater-insidey musical [title of show]; but it lasted only 102 performances. Many of them sneered at the audience-friendly musical Mamma Mia!; it’s still going strong after over 3,100 curtain calls.

I’ve also thought about my Grandma’s saying as I looked over the lists of theater awards that have been announced over the past two weeks. Nowhere has it been more true than in the response to 9 to 5, the new musical version of the 1980 movie about three female office workers who join forces to overcome their sexist boss. The apparently populist-minded theater critics and writers who vote for the Drama Desk Awards gave this latest screen-to-stage makeover 15 nominations. The more theater-establishment folks who make up the Tony nominating committee gave it just four and shut the show out of the race for Best Musical.

I fall somewhere in-between. And so does 9 to 5. Watching it reminded me of one of those holiday dinners that your Aunt Lou cooks every year: all the right dishes are there, and they’re well prepared and they’re tasty enough but, in the end, the whole meal is so predictable and humdrum that you might as well have had a Big Mac. Of course, lots of people love Big Macs. That’s why McDonald’s has so many Golden Arches. The people sitting around my niece Jennifer and me seemed to be eating 9 to 5 right up, swaying to the music, laughing at the jokes and nodding in sympathy with the show’s female empowerment message.

And despite my own response, I’m not really surprised by theirs. From its opening number, the catchy title song from the movie, 9 to 5 works hard to please. (Click here to see excerpts from the production on the show’s equally hard-working website.) A 20-piece orchestra blares out that ode to working stiffs everywhere, as well as 17 other new songs written by Dolly Parton, who starred in the movie with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.

Parton is one of the most successful songwriters in the country—and no, I don’t just mean in country music. She may be a Broadway newcomer but her songs have always been miniature stories and she knows how to write a melody. Her songs here are pleasant to hear, fit right in and move the story along, even if none of them really stick in the mind once the show is over.

There’s plenty else to keep a showgoer engaged too. The energetic 30-member cast fills the big stage at the Marquis Theatre with Andy Blankenbuhler’s frenetic choreography. Scott Pask’s constantly-morphing set is almost as busy. And director Joe Mantello and book writer Patricia Resnick, who also co-wrote the original screenplay, keep the gags coming.

The stars go all out too. Allison Janney in the Tomlin role of the office manager, doesn’t really have much of a singing voice but she knows how to hold a stage, to deliver a line and to win over an audience. Stephanie J. Block is somewhat bland in Fonda’s part as a newly divorced woman who is forced into the work world, but she knows how to belt out a show tune. Megan Hilty, as the office’s not-so-dumb blonde, does a great Dolly impersonation. And Marc Kudisch is deliciously hammy as the piggish boss.

Jennifer and I appreciated all the effort that went into pleasing us. But we could also see them sweat. Whether it all adds up to a satisfying evening for you really depends on whether you like your musicals rare, medium or well done.


Esther said...

I really enjoyed 9 to 5. Okay, it's not brilliant, groundbreaking theater but I thought it was fun and I think it would resonate with anyone - male or female - who's ever felt unappreciated on the job. It probably also helped that I had a great seat - third row, left orchestra, on the aisle! I think it'll do well on tour.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Well, it looks as though your comment was posted around the same time as the closing notice. But I agree with you that the show will probably have a long after life on the road and in performances at schools and community theaters too.