It should come as no surprise to anyone who saw the 1980 movie that the presence of Dolly Parton hovers over the musical version of "9 to 5." Parton wrote the signature song and provided the film’s most surprising and arguably most engaging performance, quite a feat given that her co-stars were Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.
Parton also wrote the music and lyrics for the 2009 Broadway show, now on a national tour, and opens the musical in a projected video set high above the stage. She introduces the main characters in that unforgettable southern twang, setting a jaunty tone that Patricia Resnick’s book carries as it portrays the wacky goings-on at a fictional company not so far removed from the real male-dominated corporate world of the '70s.
Of course, the premise of "9 to 5," the movie and musical, is completely implausible, but that makes it all the more fun. Three office “girls” seek revenge on their sexist male boss, winning the confidence of the chairman of the board and effectively taking over the company. Along the way, they develop a sense of their own worth and of what it takes to run a successful but humane enterprise. It’s an uplifting message, and even if the changes foreshadowed in the story still haven’t permeated every inner office, there’s no question that the world of work is vastly different now than when Violet, Doralee, and Judy entered it.
Watching this engaging road show, it’s hard to understand why New York critics savaged the original. Sure it’s superficial, turns at least some of its characters into caricatures, and includes some clunky jokes. But just as the movie was energized by the dazzling performances of Parton, Tomlin, and Dabney Coleman as the boss (Fonda was overly restrained), this production benefits from the stellar talents of the entire cast, starting with Dee Hoty as the wry, undervalued office manager Violet.
Hoty brings a touching humanity and authority to her depiction of the widowed single mother who serves as the glue that holds the company together. Violet is mother confessor, office troublemaker, and the most competent boss in the lot — even if the big honcho doesn’t recognize it — and Hoty does a masterful job of keeping the more over-the-top qualities of her role in check. Like Tomlin, she can be hilariously funny and real at the same time. Whether she’s belting out her determination to be “One of the Boys,” or trying to reconcile her feelings for a much-younger suitor, Hoty’s acting skill gives a welcome heft to an otherwise slight story line.
Diana DeGarmo has the unenviable task of inhabiting the Parton role of the over-endowed boss’ secretary, Doralee, but she does an impressive imitation of Parton while making the role her own. DeGarmo’s accent is almost dead-on Parton, and her costume enhancements make her physical appearance believable (or at least as believable as Parton’s). Like Hoty, she walks right up to the edge of cartoon without stepping over it and makes us take Doralee as seriously as we do her sisters-in-arms.
As Judy, the third member of the avenging triumvirate, Mamie Parris does her best with the bland role of the betrayed wife forced to go to work for the first time. Compared to Violet and Doralee, Judy doesn’t have any strong distinguishing qualities, physical or otherwise, but Parris has a beautiful voice and an innate sweetness that makes Judy a nice foil for her more flamboyant cohorts.
Rounding out the female cast is Kristine Zbornik as the boss’ suppressed admin assistant Roz, who secretly lusts after boss Frank in a breakout red-hot mama musical number, “5 to 9.” In less able hands, Roz could be a cloying portrait of the loyal secretary, willing to put up with any indignity, but Zbornik makes Roz’ dedication to the insensitive Frank both believable and riotous.
Joseph Mahowald has the double-whammy job of taking on the role of Frank, which Dabney Coleman made deliciously his own, and of going up against his dynamic trio of co-stars. Fortunately, Mahowald is up to it. His sonorous speaking and singing voice imbue his Frank with a sexiness that Coleman lacked, giving his romps around the desk with Doralee a genuine, appropriately offensive tone.
If Parton’s music and words don’t reach the heights of the signature “9 to 5,” they’re hummable and engaging, something that’s more and more rare in the world of contemporary musical theater. The production design is clever and eye-catching, a candy-colored grouping of horizontal and vertical panels that change from secretarial pool to boss’s office to elevator hallway and hospital emergency room.
In the end, though, it’s the first-rate cast of actors-hoofers-singers that make this "9 to 5" a delight from start to finish. And if the script feels a little dated, the high jinks and high energy more than make up for any deficiencies.
If you go: "9 to 5," through April 24 at 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Ave. Tickets start at $33 ($20 for people 25 and under on day of show) and are available at the box office, by phone (206-625-1900; 888-5TH-4TIX), or online.