It’s almost a surprise that Dolly Parton has never written music and lyrics for a Broadway musical before 9 to 5, adapted from the 1980 film in which she co-starred. There’s always been a theatrical quality to her lengthy catalog of hits, each one a showstopper meant to be belted out to the last row of whatever venue she’s playing. That said, 9 to 5 itself isn’t as immediately obvious a fit for Broadway. The original film is a hilarious but dark satire of sexism in the workplace, laced with edgy jokes and outright subversion — a comedy classic, but how will it work as a mainstream musical?
Surprisingly well, it turns out. The Consolidated Industries office of Patricia Resnick’s book is every bit as nasty a place as it was on film, its sexual harassment, pay inequality, and general employee misery preserved intact amidst a leaping ensemble of typists and suits. Resnick has also kept the film’s slapstick violence and drug humor — yes, even the extended pot-fueled hallucination sequence. By refusing to sand down these edges for a Broadway audience, Resnick’s book nails the same balancing act as its source material: 9 to 5 remains a laugh-out-loud treatment of very serious issues.
It certainly doesn’t hurt to have the always excellent Allison Janney (The West Wing) starring as Violet Newstead, the head secretary role originated by Lily Tomlin. What Janney lacks in natural singing chops, she more than makes up for with her impeccable comic timing and genuine pathos. Megan Hilty (Wicked) does a passable Parton impression as the deceptively ditzy Doralee Rhodes, while Stephanie J. Block (The Boy From Oz) gets some decent laughs as the uptight Judy Bernly (originally played by Jane Fonda). Funniest of all might be Marc Kudisch (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) as Franklin Hart Jr., the truly detestable pig of a boss whom the three Consolidated secretaries stumble into kidnapping. Wearing a perfectly pitched permasmirk as he abuses his employees, Kudisch makes his character’s comeuppance a pleasure to see.
Parton’s new tunes, meanwhile, are just fine. None of them will likely be entering her greatest-hits canon any time soon, but they advance the musical’s plot well enough. And it’s tough to complain about any performance that includes not one but two renditions of 9 to 5’s title song, still one of Parton’s catchiest, cleverest compositions. Seeing the cast sing it out on stage is enough to make any aspiring pop songwriter pour him- or herself a strong cup of ambition. B+
(Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 800-982-2787)