Dolly Parton is famous for two things. (No, not those anatomical peaks, but we’ll get back to them.) The first thing is that she conquered country music and became the queen of Nashville. Secondly, she crossed into mainstream stardom in the enduring film comedy 9 to 5 (1980), solidly holding her own opposite urban and urbane players Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. Not only has the film held up well (high rankings from Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb), but so has the title song Parton wrote for it. The movie and the song brought her widespread affection and respect.
Everyone knows now that although she’s a delightful comedienne, she’s no joke herself. Spurred on by how much this has meant to her, Parton has written the score of an entire musical, punching out idioms and rhythms we did not know she had in her. In 9 to 5: The Musical, just as in the movie on which it is based, composer-lyricist Parton will not be limited by cliché. It’s the current attraction at Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse.
Parton linked up with Patricia Res-nick, who devised the original script, to reinvest about 90 percent of the movie’s themes and action into 9 to 5: The Musical, which opened on Broadway at the end of April 2009, after a successful preview in Los Angeles. It’s still a feminist fable about three disparate office workers kidnapping a male chauvinist pig manager and introducing female-friendly work rules that increase productivity. No messing with any of that.
What makes it feel different is that the four principals are now a part of a crowd, a male and female chorus who fill the several production numbers, well choreographed by Yoav Levin. The most arresting of these is the opener, with workers getting dressed and ready to go, all done to the title song, still the best number in the show.
Changes are small, but they add up. Some pivotal minor characters have been added. Each of the female conspirators now has more to say, not only more lines but solo numbers to express themselves through wishes. There’s an edgier humor and a little rougher language, more Broadway than the cineplex. That said, it must be admitted that 9 to 5: The Musical flourished only in summer 2009, drawing out-of-town audiences, and closed in October. With all the show’s feel-good speeches and Parton’s country base and-her crossover appeal, 9 to 5: The Musical is likely to do better on the road and in regional venues, like as part of Auburn’s Finger Lakes Musical Theater Festival, than it did in Gotham.
Once seen on stage, 9 to 5: The Musical presents again a problem with an adaptation of any well-known movie. Are the characters before theater audiences to be seen as creatures of the narrative or as evocations of the actors playing them on screen? Director Kate Swan and three of the four players are free to create as they wish. With the fourth, however, Doralee Rhodes, there is no way of erasing Parton’s distinctive persona.
Although the film was released in 1980, the action takes place a few years earlier, when the IBM Selectric II was state-of-the-art technology and Mad Men patriarchy was pretty much unchallenged. Projected graphics remind us of icons of the era: Billie Jean King, a young Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit and Jimmy Carter. Into the bustling offices of Consolidated Industries stumbles shy, awkward divorcee Judy Bernly (Lindsie VanWinkle), easily flummoxed by a Xerox machine. She is taken in charge by an older worker, Violet Newstead (Marci Reid), who explains how things work in the duet, “Around Here.”
Violet warns Judy against associating with the buxom blonde Doralee Rhodes (Shayla Osborn), whom the insufferable male boss, Franklin Hart Jr. (Josh Powell), implies he’s sleeping with. Smarmy and condescending, Hart violates every feminist code, beginning with demanding immediate coffee service. Resnick and Parton invent piggery for him that begs credulity. He likes to knock a cup of pencils off his desk, thus forcing the female worker down on her hands and knees to pick them up.
While Violet may have been originally the Lily Tomlin role, her rewrite seems tailored for Allison Janney, the take-charge TV actress who appeared in the Broadway production. From all reports she was also a miserable singer. Marci Reid at MGR not only brings a voice of considerable range and color to the assertive Violet, but she’s a lithe and graceful dancer in production numbers with the male chorus, especially “One of the Boys,” which opens the second act. Revealing hidden reserves of humor, she also fanaticizes poisoning the boorish Hart with something snatched from a witch out of the Brothers Grimm in “Potion Notion.” New in the musical, Violet now has a male admirer, Joe (Eric Whitehead), initially rebuffed but later put to good use.
The film’s Judy was Jane Fonda, cast wildly against type and not seen at her best trying to pull it off. In Judy’s rewrite Lindsie VanWinkle traverses the longest arc, proceeding from mouse to tigress. Her fantasy murder of Hart portrays her as a femme fatale from a 1940s film noir, in a number titled “Dance of Death.” Later in the second act Judy becomes the only character to speak for hard-edged feminism as the song-belter in “Get Out and Stay Out.”
As for Doralee, no flat-chested brunette is ever going to play this role, not without augmentation. At one point the still-nave Judy puts her hands on Doralee’s thrusting mammaries, and asks, “Are these real?” To which actress Shayla Osborn, smiling to the audience, responds, “Just as real as the hair on my head.”
In this depiction, art was imitating life from the get-go. Violet and Judy were underestimating Doralee, not realizing that she was as grossly exploited as they were, only for her looks. Parton’s unique appeal is based on a paradox. Under that overt, Jayne Mansfield-esque sexuality (not a good idea in the office, counselors advise) lies a spunky innocence, like that of silent movie tomboy Mary Pickford. Not surprisingly, then, Doralee’s two solos are modest self-dramatizations, “Backwoods Barbie” and her murder fantasy, “Cowgirl’s Revenge.”
Not only does Parton generously avoid assigning herself the biggest numbers, but she writes a hilarious scene-stealing number for a fourth woman, not one of the conspirators. It’s the hated company snitch Roz Keith (Nikki Switzer), who comes on with the presence of a Marine sergeant or a prison matron. Her hot solo, “Heart to Hart,” confessing her lust for the loathsome boss, is done in gospel style, complete with a choir. Lucy Brown’s costume revels in eroticism without showing any skin.
Josh Powell’s subversion of the otherwise thankless role of Hart is to have him reveal an unexpected rush in having the girls put him in bondage.
Music director Mark Goodman leads a robust pit orchestra of 10, giving lushness to Parton’s melodies. Robert Andrusko’s set designs allow for lightning-fast changes, as action zips constantly in and out of the office. And director Kate Swan, an MGR favorite with such items as Meet Me in St Louis (2010) and Hairspray (2011), really knows how to contain the sprawling action that often spills out of movies remade for the stage. t
This production runs through July 18.
See Times Table for information.