'9 to 5' leaves room for improvement

 
 
Updated 1/21/2011 4:04 PM
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  • Secretary Doralee Rhodes (Diana DeGarmo) ropes up her sexist boss, Franklin Hart, Jr. (Joseph Mahowald), in the national tour of "9 to 5: The Musical," now at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago through Sunday, Jan. 30.

    Secretary Doralee Rhodes (Diana DeGarmo) ropes up her sexist boss, Franklin Hart, Jr. (Joseph Mahowald), in the national tour of "9 to 5: The Musical," now at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago through Sunday, Jan. 30.

  • Dee Hoty, Diana DeGarmo and Mamie Parris, center, star in "9 to 5: The Musical" at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago through Sunday, Jan. 30.

    Dee Hoty, Diana DeGarmo and Mamie Parris, center, star in "9 to 5: The Musical" at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago through Sunday, Jan. 30.

  • Dee Hoty, Mamie Parris and Diana DeGarmo star in "9 to 5: The Musical" at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago through Sunday, Jan. 30.

    Dee Hoty, Mamie Parris and Diana DeGarmo star in "9 to 5: The Musical" at the Bank of America Theatre in Chicago through Sunday, Jan. 30.

There was an undeniable outpouring of affection between country legend Dolly Parton and the audience for "9 to 5: The Musical" at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre on press night Wednesday.

Braving the Windy City's wintry weather, Parton flew in from making a movie in Atlanta to mark her 65th birthday with the cast and crew of "9 to 5." Before the show, Gov. Pat Quinn introduced the sparkly dressed singer and gave her a framed proclamation of a statewide "Dolly Parton Day."

Addressing the audience (both live and via a video projection at the end of the musical), Parton asked for everybody to tell their friends how much they liked the show. And if you didn't, Parton perkily admonished, "keep your mouth shut."

Sorry, Ms. Parton, no can do. Like so many screen-to-stage adaptations, "9 to 5: The Musical" comes off as yet another show mounted to capitalize on a much-loved pre-existing title without expanding much theatrically beyond the original film (in this case the 1980 movie that famously featured Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda as fed-up, undervalued secretaries who teach their male chauvinist boss a lesson).

"9 to 5" book writer Patricia Resnick also penned the original screenplay, but she doesn't flesh out the stage characters beyond cartoonish types. Resnick resorts to dated technology jokes for laughs, and sticks far too close to film events that don't always translate well to stage. A hospital scene, for example, felt superfluous, while the garage door contraption sight gag that hoists up Joseph Mahowald's hostage boss was initially confusing.

Parton's hit title song "9 to 5" is featured alongside a brand new score showcasing songs that would be great as generalized pop singles ("Backwoods Barbie" in particular, which Parton released before the musical debuted). But there is a lack of plotting thrust to many of her tunes, so the show often comes off as static.

I missed the 2009 Broadway incarnation of "9 to 5," so I can't say if new director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun's tour staging is an improvement. The movable modules with rotating panels by set designer Kenneth Foy weren't the most elaborate, but they did allow for Calhoun to create a zippy staging to illustrate the show's many, many scenes and locations.

In terms of talent, some cast members appear overqualified, while others just get the job done.

As the down-to-earth widow Violet, Dee Hoty has talent to spare since she has to sing songs originally tailored for Allison Janney (who by many accounts isn't much of a singer). But Hoty brings a welcome wry authority to a woman who chomps at the bit to climb the corporate ladder.

More opportunities for vocal dynamism come from "American Idol" finalist Diana DeGarmo and Mamie Parris in the respective roles of Doralee and Judy. Both certainly deliver in that department. But acting-wise, DeGarmo creates a polished Parton impersonation rather than making the role her own, while Parris seems hampered by her character's annoying quirk of reciting trivia at inopportune times.

Among the rest of the ensemble, Kristine Zbornik as the scheming office assistant Roz and Jane Blass as the alcoholic secretary Margaret both emerged as audience favorites.

As Parton and Resnick's first major foray into writing a Broadway musical, "9 to 5" is merely OK when it could have been so much better. Considering all the societal and workplace changes of the past 30 years, "9 to 5" is more content to laugh at the past rather than comment on what has (or hasn't) been achieved in the interim.