There was no helping the sense of pride I felt in learning that Dolly Parton's musical version of her film "9 to 5" would have its world premiere in my hometown. I thought, even if it turns out to be a huge stinking mess, it's not often Los Angeles gets the honor of seeing a Broadway-quality show *before* it gets to Broadway. Luckily, it's far from a huge stinking mess. (The only mess of the night was the crowded parking situation created by the opera being performed at the Dorothy Chandler right across the way from the Ahmanson.)
Though a few songs and all of the first act need tightening, "9 to 5: The Musical" has the elements of a likely hit: addictive music, relatable characters, mesmerizing sets, well-placed humor and lots of heart. One wouldn't expect any less from a creative dream team of stars and Broadway veterans. Joe Mantello's direction and 2008 Tony-winner Andy Blankenbeuhler's choreography are seamless and captivating. Musical director Stephen Oremus's orchestration and arrangement skills are evidenced by the fuller sound given to Parton's score, which happily invites the audience into the world of the 1979 workplace.
The book, written by the film's screenwriter Patricia Resnick, could use work. Using lines from the film works well with audiences, but there were a few too many cliches. Several cliches, however, ceased to be so when said by Allison Janney. She doesn't try to play Lily Tomlin playing Violet Newstead -- she plays a new Violet Newstead. It's clear she's not a natural singer, but her voice is quite good and it fits the character well, not to mention the fact that her acting could make up for any musical shortcomings.
As newcomer divorcee Judy Bernly, Stephanie J. Block lives up to the hype created by fans of her "Wicked" days. Her voice is unique and stunning, almost bigger than one would think. But her real strength is being able to show a clear journey for her character, and it's thrilling to see Judy finally take control of her life and stand up to the man who wronged her in the showstopper "Get Out and Stay Out." Block will help bring in the younger fans who loved her in "Wicked," but by the time she's done with "9 to 5" she should have gone beyond "Wicked" to become a true Broadway star. The same can be said for Megan Hilty, who plays Parton's old role of secretary Doralee Rhodes and had the audience eating out of her hand at her first line. If you need a near-perfect example of an actress completely inhabiting a character, she's it.
The three stars -- Janney, Block and Hilty -- have palpable chemistry that makes them believable as partners in crime. I relished any point in which they sang in 3-part harmony. On another note, the ensemble is very strong; this show can only benefit from all the talent collected on the stage.
Despite great performances all around, there are some issues that definitely need addressing. That's what out-of-town tryouts are for. The final scene of Act I needs reworking: we need to really feel that thrill of taking control of the boss and it's not quite there. The same goes for "Out of Control," the number where Judy has a battle with the Xerox machine. It's been toned down too much. One can't convincingly sing about being out of control if the scene doesn't show that she is. I'd personally like to see more development of the two most prominent male characters, Hart and Joe (Violet's love interest, created for the musical). Hart is technically the fourth lead, and currently he's a tad weak and without depth. The best antagonists are the ones that are fully developed and not one- or two-dimensional. As for the sets, I'm happy they're working at last, but they seem to envelop the cast and make them seem small. This is good for the first act, but as the women take control they need to stand out more, and their strong, solid costumes in the finale don't quite make them stand out enough.
Ultimately, the aforementioned issues don't keep "9 to 5" from being enjoyed thoroughly by the audience. The applause at the end of the show, particularly for the three ladies, strongly suggests that "9 to 5" could make a big splash when it arrives on Broadway next year.
Photo: Craig Schwartz / Center Theatre Group