Composer-lyricist Dolly Parton’s theatrical debut, “9 to 5: The Musical,” qualifies as what folks call “a fun show”: rarely any less, but at this point rarely more. Besides the audience’s enormous affection for Parton in her mostly auspicious bow, “9 to 5” rides a swell of good will from the popular 1980 farce, though substituting a heavy hand (and considerable bad taste) for the movie’s light heart. Judicious streamlining could determine whether this Gotham-bound celebration of workplace women breaks through the glass ceiling separating modest success from long-run hit.
Librettist Patricia Resnick slavishly follows her screenplay penned with the late Colin Higgins, as three put-upon corporate secretaries marshal their newfound sisterhood to rid Consolidated Industries of the ultimate sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical, bigoted boss (Marc Kudisch, all football-hero bravado) and his weaselly office spy (an amusingly milksoppy Kathy Fitzgerald).
MVP of both cabal and tuner is ultracompetent Violet Newstead, Lily Tomlin’s signature role to which Allison Janney brings her “West Wing”-honed professionalism along with unexpected showbiz pizzazz. Show treats her like Lauren Bacall in politely disguising her song and dance limitations, and she responds with a powerhouse turn, imbuing every scene with exuberance and emotional availability.
Other significant contributions come from choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (“In the Heights”), successfully conveying in dance the deadening routine of soulless office work, and the design team’s evocation of the rah-rah early Reagan years through gliding panels and pillars and a wittily employed, Saul Bass-influenced projection wall.
But the muscle here is Parton, whose distinctive blend of pop appeal and Country & Western twang was hardly an inevitable fit with “9 to 5’s” urban satire. Despite dubious rhyming (“no sex/TV set”) and rote lyrics (“Gotta hustle, gotta bustle, gotta scoot, gotta scurry”), score mostly achieves its intended goals of variety, build and likability, at its best nailing character with images as resonant as the title tune’s “Pour myself a cup of ambition.”
The diva herself is essentially present in virtual clone Megan Hilty’s down-home Doralee Rhodes, complete with push-up bra and standup attitude. Reminiscing of her girlhood in the wistful “Backwoods Barbie” — “From rags to wishes, in my dreams, I could have it all” — Hilty redoubles the crowd’s affection for both thesp and composer.
Helmer Joe Mantello consistently indulges business in dubious taste, from bathroom humor and a pervasive crotch fixation to suggestions of women’s underlying crudeness. (Fantasizing her life as a CEO, Violet leers down at a co-worker at a urinal, and when impersonating a doctor immediately snaps “Piss off” at a nurse.) That powerful women may behave as badly as men is an interesting premise, though out of place in “9 to 5.”
Mantello’s also allowed the first act to bloat, starting with a trio of tiresomely overdone fantasies as Violet, Doralee and the recently divorced Judy (Stephanie J. Block) get high and plot staging Franklin Hart Jr.’s demise as rodeo roundup, Disney cartoon and (new to the tuner) film-noir rubout. Giant production numbers lose sight of character and quickly wear out their welcome.
Then film and tuner abandon working concerns for an outlandish chase subplot when Violet believes she’s actually poisoned Hart. A painfully unfunny hospital sequence is punctuated by the dismal “I Killed the Boss!,” with the lyrics sounding like dummies Dolly hasn’t gotten around to fixing yet.
Taste nadir is reached by intercutting (without irony) Hart’s trussed-up kidnapping in a car trunk, then hanging from the rafters, with the triumphant Girl Power ballad “Shine Like the Sun.” Mantello surely intends a contrast with his act one “Wicked” finale: Females still sing of self-empowerment, though someone very different is defying gravity. But there’s something cringe-inducing in musical self-congratulations for terror arguably worse than the victim’s workplace misdeeds.
Act two is brighter and sports better songs as the girls go about making enlightened changes in Hart’s absence. Violet gets a charming duet “Let Love Grow” in May/December romance with accountant Joe (an excellent Andy Karl), and even Roz is permitted the humanity to mourn time away from her beloved boss from “5 to 9.”
Block’s perky airhead lacks Jane Fonda’s amusingly earnest squareness (a boop-a-doop’s battle with an errant photocopier isn’t all that funny). But she emphatically stops the show in her consciousness-raised demand that ex-husband Dick “Get Out and Stay Out,” Parton’s best new composition.
Cutting act one’s fat could facilitate more stage time for the transformation of Consolidated from hellhole to green, family-friendly workplace, a longed-for denouement currently rushed and perfunctory.
First-night run time of 2:30 excludes a 20-minute first act hiatus for set-change problems, during which the irrepressible Parton grabbed a hand mic to lead the crowd in a title tune sing-along, to no one’s dismay except perhaps that of an anxious management.