9 to 5 The Musical Theater Review - What a Way to Make A Musical!

I thoroughly enjoyed this show. Let’s just get that formality out of the way.

The fact is, I’m still reeling from the experience. Running late, literally driving a checkerboard through the streets of Hollywood because the 101 south is a parking lot, not finding my usual parking space free, and counting on the traditional eight minute delay of curtain, I reached my date and my seat just as the house goes to half. Reeling, I try to catch my breath, still winded and worried even though I had made it. And the house goes to black. With a single strung, a solo kick of the drum, one by one, lights ignite the stage, as characters “…yawn and stretch and try to come to life” to the familiar bouncy cadence of Dolly Parton’s title classic 9 to 5.

Taking a breather from work

Identically to it’s film predecessor, 9 to 5 The Musical takes a comic look the bygone era of the overtly sexist pig, as seen through the eyes of three unlikely friends within a large company circa 1979. Violet ( Allison Janney) is a middle-aged widow with a 15 year-old son, trapped by the glass ceiling despite her brilliant mind and excess of qualifications. She trains the incoming junior managers only to have them promoted over her, time and time again. Her recourse: she has none; she needs the job to support her family, not to mention it’s the same story all over town. In 1979, penetrating the corporate boy’s club is virtually impossible.

Judy ( Stephanie J. Block) is the latest damsel to land in the secretarial pool. It is painfully ironic for her considering that her husband Dick (Dan Conney) has just left her for his secretary, a girl half her age. Left to fend for herself with practically no skills, Violet takes pity on Judy and teaches her the ropes of the office, despite her lack of experience. Judy’s challenge is to muster the self-confidence she needs to survive on her own while trying not to die from a broken heart.

Megan Hilty & Marc Kudisch in "9 to 5 The Musical"

Doralee ( Megan Hilty) is a happily married woman. Shacked up with her dear Dwayne ( Charlie Pollock), saddled up with big dreams, big… hair, she has moved beyond small town life, looking to make her mark in the big city. The problem is, because of her enormous… personality, the rest of the office thinks she is sleeping with the Boss. Or maybe it’s because their slime-ball Boss, Franklin Hart ( Marc Kudisch) is spreading the lie himself. 

Hart has run-ins with each other women, condescending and intimidating, until the confrontation between them comes to a head. And victory in this first row in the war of wills goes to the femme trio, mostly because Doralee carries a gun in her purse. Tucked away in his home since his wife is away, the women “kidnap” the Boss for fear that he will destroy them if they ever free him. They have to find some dirt on him first. But the clock is ticking.

Taking Charge!!

9 to 5 The Musical could have been a really bad idea. (At first glance, it sure sounds like a bad idea.) However, with this specific incarnation of the book by Patricia Resnick, I found that nothing could be further from the case. The dream sequences featured in the film are perhaps the best fit for the stage, where the true grandeur of the girls fantasies can lavishly come to life. The production fills every inch of the stage with movement and nuance, music and laughter; this production is clearly on the road to Broadway.

Perhaps the secret to the strength of this production is in the no so secret ingredients. The three female leads emulate their feature film counterparts expertly. Allison Janney is very funny. Her Violet gives the production its foundation in reality as the one character we immediately identify with. 9 to 5 The Musical re-teams heavyweights Stephanie J. Block and Megan Hiney fresh off of their success co-starring in the Los Angeles production of Wicked. The two actresses tent pole Janney’s comic lead with powerhouse vocal performances and distinctive colorful characters that create a elasticly wacky chemistry between the three of them. 

Girls Gone Wild

Marc Kudisch’s performance as sexist bigot CEO Franklin Hart Jr. actually makes you a little sad anyone ever came up with the idea of sexual harassment. The stage has not seen a shamelessly pulsating pelvis like that since the King himself. His performance is broad and fun; Kudisch embodies a character that you will love to hate him.

I officially love Dolly Parton. She is a hard person to not like. Her persona is caring, self-effacing and very down to earth. She has enjoyed a respected career as a talented, prolific songstress. However, this musical solidifies her talents as an expert musician and songwriter. Only three song were disctinctive Dolly. “ Backwoods Barbie” a single from Parton’s latest album perhaps could not be more auto biographical for the singer/songwriter. The “Cowgirl’s Revenge” number is a shining homage to her country western roots, and “Let Love Grow” featuring Janney and Andy Karl as Joe is an example of Parton’s signature, sweet and simple, yet soul bearing lyrics.

(l to r) Allison Janney, Megan Hilty, Stephanie J. Block & Kathy Fitzgerald in "9 to 5 The Musical"

Given that this is a musical which primarily takes place in a office setting, the musical numbers were really good. The show captured my heart early on with the melancholy, three part lullabye “The One I Love” where our three heroines wistfully regale their woes in song. (Lovely simplicity in the staging.) “Here for You” has a horny Hart lustfully proclaiming his desire for an unwitting Doralee. Roz ( Kathy Fitzgerlald) and company bring the house down with  “Heart to Hart”, a featured solo where the office manager’s buring love for Hart reaches critical mass and manifest itself in a private session of self-titilation and in the release of her inner diva. Again, great staging; that number rocked! Finally, late in the Third Act, Judy belts out an anthem for all the jilted wives out there in the driving power ballad, “Get Out And Stay Out”.

The high caliber of artists on this production shined through in the production elements as well as in the performances. The scenic design was insane. (That’s a compliment.) The chaotic orchestration of set pieces sailing across the stage on tracked platforms, the flats that fly in, swift and silent transform the stage over and over and over again with the greatest of easy. Extremely fluid, orchestrated perfectly with the light and sound cues. Congratulations to scenic designer Scott Pask on set pieces that were extremely ambitious, yet extremely effective and successful.

The majestic and magically set of "9 to 5 The Musical"

The choreography was insane. (That’s a compliment!) Choreographer Andy Blankenbueler throws in everything but the kitchen sink in the movement language of this show, a little modern, a little jazz, and even a little “cheated” tap. Players glide seamlessly from character to choreography and song with isolations and lifts synchronized to every pluck and strum that rose from the orchestra pit. The unified use of props, with the grace of dance while maintaining characters prompted vivid memories for me of one of my favorite muscials, West Side Story.

This production uses it’s ensemble so brilliantly. As a theater enthusast, it is so gratifying to see thirty people on stage and feel like you can hear the individual voice of each and every one of them, showering the theater with a rainbow of sound. Stephen Oremus’ vocal arrangements are both breathtaking and invigorating. Well done.

Marc Kudisch as Franklin Hart Jr. in "9 to 5 The Musical"

The lighting design and Imaging team from Dreamgirls, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauser, provides a shining spectacle that is practically a show all its own. Used equally for mood and setting, flashing from skyscraping cityscape to single home silhouette to elaborate Broadway light bank, the animated lighting added the perfect subliminal (and sometimes not so subtle) accent to the action on stage. My favorite image was the belt bucket. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because it was the 3-D illusion as it sailed towards the audience. It was just cool.

At the helm of the production is two time Tony Award winning director, Joe Mantello ( Wicked, Take Me Out). Mantello uses a deft hand to balance the spectacle and the sentimental elements of this production. There are clear nods to previous work (by himself and other performers) in this show, where he shares a wink with the audience. And at the same time, he does not focus so sharp a lense on language or wardrobe that the show feels dated. The show was both extravangant and quintessential at exactly the right moment. Save one lighting cue, Mantello pretty much delivers a perfect show that honors and elevates the art form of musical theater.
 
9 to 5 The Musical is a great time at the theater. It will renew your faith in the plausibility of spontaneous choreography. It will warm your heart and remind you to be grateful for the people you have in your life. I will make you want to hold the ones you love closer. It will satisfy the craving we all get every now and them for a David and Goliath tale of triumph. But most of all, it will remind us of a time not so long ago when the divide between men and women was quite vast, but obviously unsurmountable. Thank heavens we actually are evolving as a human race, bit by bit.

9 to 5 The Musical runs September 23 thru October 16, 2008 at: 

Ahmanson Theatre
at the Music Center
downtown Los Angeles

135 N. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90012

http://www.centertheatregroup.org/

Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz

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