8:39 AM CDT, August 22, 2013
I'm wholly in the tank for the great Dolly Parton — I regularly vacation at Dollywood, for goodness sake — but having now seen three different attempts to make a decent show out of the movie "9 to 5," I've reluctantly come to the conclusion that this is just a piece of confounding cinematic, of-its-era material that never wanted to be made into a musical, doesn't work as a musical and can't really be fixed up as a good one for now.
That's not to say David H. Bell at the Marriott Theatre does not throw all manner of inventive ideas — and a bevy of shrewd casting and talented actors — at the problem.
Sometimes, it takes second-tier material to bring out a director's best work. And while no director will be remembered for "9 to 5: The Musical," nor would want to be, Bell really has done everything anyone could ask.
Most notably, he has freed the show of all the superfluous scenery that pulled focus in the original Broadway production and Jeff Calhoun's touring version (which was radically different, and considerably better, than the show on Broadway).
Bell's new Marriott take uses the bare minimum of staging — when the plot requires the copier to go haywire, someone just throws paper on the floor — which helps mitigate one of the more crippling aspects of Patricia Resnick's overly slavish-to-the-movie book, which is that the show is constantly shifting locales and the story of the avenging secretaries is told in a sequence of short, filmic scenes that fail to open up theatrically.
And that's not all he achieves.
The script is rarely more than mildly amusing, but Bell and his actors, especially the delicious Holly Stauder as the office lush, really milk that comedy for all possible laughs.
He takes quite a few risks in terms of zaniness and shtick, and they almost all pay off.
"9 to 5" is filled with fantasy sequences — one character or another is always dreaming of something, which is then visualized as they sing — and the choreographer Matt Raftery, whose work is getting better and better, takes what you might call a "Drowsy Chaperone" tack and constantly has these fantasies arriving out of nowhere on an empty stage and then disappearing whence they came, leaving the office flunky bereft.
Many of these sequences are fine work, indeed — I especially liked a fresh-feeling fantasy sequence where sleazy boss Mr. Hart (James Moye) plays out his sensual ambitions on a dancing double of his perky secretary, whom Bell has appear from inside his desk, even as her doppelganger is telling her louse of a boss to go to hell.
Alas, none of that can make the score better.
Parton is a formidable songwriter, but the songs she wrote for the stage version of "9 to 5" are not her best work, with the exception of "Backwoods Barbie," an autobiographical ditty (sung here by Alexandra Palkovic) about, well, what it is like to be a big-breasted blonde with brains that no-one can appreciate. That's a fine, revealing ditty and so is the title tune, which was penned years earlier.
But the rest of the score?
I'm writing this review minutes after final curtain and they already are vanishing from my consciousness, even though Susan Moniz threw every ounce of her massive talent into the power ballad "Get Out and Stay Out."
Too often, the songs just don't seem to land in the right spots in the book or the lyrics don't move the action along sufficiently, or both of the above. But the biggest issue of all is that the plot of "9 to 5" (sexist boss irritates his beleaguered secretaries so much that they finally snap and kidnap him so they can run the company) means that the show has to establish the bad behavior of that boss and that, since this is a comedy, we thus have to laugh at the staging of the aforementioned sexist behavior. Not so funny these days (although Bell nearly busts a gut trying to find the right tone). More workable, perhaps, in 1980, when the movie came out and any number of female workplace advances had yet to happen. Now it just feels like tired material.
Finally, "9 to 5" is a caper movie (how are the women going to keep the boss tied up?), which always works better on film than on stage, where feelings come more into play.
Bell's production is admirable (Ben Jacoby, a charmer, is another asset), but even this one can't sustain the suspense of the plot, and the evening ends in a rote scene, seemingly designed to wrap everything up as absurdly as possible.
The biggest pleasure of the Marriott "9 to 5" is the return to this stage of Kelli Cramer, a once busy actress whom it feels like we've not seen in years.
Cramer, who plays the sardonic widow Violet and is like a younger version of the great Alene Robertson, is a delight throughout, churning out dry witticisms and yet also performing with genuinely infectious zest, of the kind that one finds in Dollywood, whose warm Partonic embrace I prefer to this show, all most impressive efforts at the Marriott notwithstanding.
When: Through Oct. 13
Where: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive in Lincolnshire
Tickets: $40-$48 at 847-634-0200 or marriotttheatre.com
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