The principal asset in “9 to 5: The Musical” is unquestionably the beloved screen property on which this eager-to-please adaptation is based. The popular 1980 fem-powerment farce about three renegade secretaries who turn the tables on their chauvinistic boss was driven by three iconic performances, and the women who step into those heels here do dandy work re-creating those characters with enough freshness to rise above mere imitation. If the material showcasing the trio is an uneven cut-and-paste job that struggles to recapture the movie’s giddy estrogen rush, plenty of folks will nonetheless find this a nostalgic crowd-pleaser.
The other big ace up the show’s sleeve is Dolly Parton. Regrettably, the Tennessee sparrow isn’t actually up there onstage, but she’s creditably channeled by Megan Hilty in the Doralee role, from the boobs-and-bouffant look to the twangy vocals, downhome charm and disarming pluckiness.
As composer-lyricist of the country-flavored pop score, Parton is a significant presence as well, not just in the evergreen title tune but particularly in a handful of new songs. The wry self-validation of “Backwoods Barbie,” the delicate optimism of “I Just Might,” the upbeat resilience of “Shine Like the Sun” and take-charge attitude of “Change It” all reveal the songwriter’s authentic personality, and “9 to 5” is at its most winning when these numbers focus attention squarely on the women battling for a fair deal in an unequal-opportunity environment.
However, other key creative elements are hit and miss. Patricia Resnick’s book wisely conserves the movie’s best jokes and sticks to the 1979 setting. But the antic plotting lacks flow, and the additions — a love interest for lead steno-pool mutineer Violet (Allison Janney); hindsight digs at the era’s innovations; a more forcefully articulated emancipation agenda to muscle up the ending — are fairly pedestrian. It’s hard not to assume the real heart of the script came from the film’s director and co-screenwriter, the late comedy genius Colin Higgins, who gave us “Harold and Maude.”
Director Joe Mantello and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler bring their own set of problems. Associations with Mantello’s megahit “Wicked” may be unintended (both Hilty and Stephanie J. Block, who plays the Jane Fonda role, Judy, are alumnae witches), but “9 to 5” gets strident at times in remixing that show’s girl-power formula. Block is stirring as she amps up into “Get Out and Stay Out,” Judy’s gutsy reclamation of pride and rejection of her wayward husband, but you almost expect her to grab her broom and defy gravity. Worse are the crude sight gags.
Blankenbuehler’s “In the Heights” moves were an organic physical expression of those characters’ desires. Here, his slinky dance idiom is out of sync with the comic tone. His fussy scene segues, coupled with the cumbersome hydraulic shifting of panels, pillars, desks and overhead lighting tracks in Scott Pask’s busy office set, inhibit momentum and crowd the characters.
Maybe audiences want to see major movables onstage, but the show’s most satisfying moments come when the hardware is stripped away and it’s just the characters, backed by Peter Nigrini and Peggy Eisenhauer’s period-evocative projection wall or bathed in Jules Fisher and Kenneth Posner’s pastel-toned lighting. Less is often more here.
Pask’s most playable set is the office of obnoxious boss Franklin Hart Jr. (Marc Kudisch), where he puts the moves on Doralee and her double Ds until she turns cowgirl on his ass. Kudisch is a hilarious and oddly lovable scoundrel as the “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” who fuels the women’s revenge fantasies, and his comic chemistry with the irresistible Hilty is especially sharp. Block tends to recede in book scenes but aces the vocals.
Kathy Fitzgerald earns laughs as Franklin’s besotted spy Roz; her “Heart to Hart” number is foiled by dubious staging (with dancers in Roz drag emerging from bathroom stalls), but her wistful “5 to 9” again shows the strengths of Parton’s work in quieter mode.
The invaluable Janney juggles acerbity and warmth with flair in the Lily Tomlin role. She’s no great singer but is frequently buffered by the superior pipes of her co-stars and handles solo duties with assurance and decent pitch. Violet’s splashy “One of the Boys” is a knowingly cheesy late-’70s-style showstopper that recalls Lauren Bacall sashaying and barking through numbers in “Woman of the Year.” More precisely, it conjures 1981 stalker pic “The Fan,” with Bacall playing an actress in a doozy of a show called “Never Say Never,” an unintentionally funny hymn to bad Broadway.
The pleasures of “9 to 5” are less guilty, but they’re also less satisfying than they should be. The promising material and terrific performers are too often sold short by clumsy story-building, overwhelming sets and unfocused direction.