All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Sharp characterizations by Dee Hoty, Amy Bodnar, and Amanda Rose join with a fireworks explosion of a performance by Mary Martello to keep the Walnut Street Theatre production of Dolly Parton’s “Nine to Five” so consistently entertaining, they neatly mask a contrived plot and override mediocre music and lyrics planted so solidly in the middle of the road, traffic can pass in either direction with no danger of hitting them.
Giving Parton slightly more credit, “Nine to Five” has a handful of musical numbers that have the wit and drive of the singer-songwriter’s best work. The title song, with a pulsating beat that approximates the frenetic pace one goes through while pouring “a cup of ambition,” earns its long-held popularity. It shows Parton’s ability to rhyme cleverly while telling a story and keeping rhythm catchy within a song. “Backwoods Barbie,” delivered with both depth and humor by Bodnar, is a heartfelt saga of the underestimation, and even contempt, a blonde bombshell might expect when people judge her by her “cover” instead of taking the time to get acquainted with the book. “Heart to Hart” is one of those good old-fashioned Broadway staples in which a pinched or mousy character lets loose and reveals the visceral, lascivious animal underneath the tailored suits and the blouses and scarves that hide all flesh from mid-calf to chin.
Mary Martello emerges from a prim, tattle telling office snoop to an untamable force of nature as she tosses aside the de rigueur eyeglasses, undoes the knot of the tie-collar that is part of her blouse, and gyrates suggestively above a sofa bolster in an uninhibited stunner of a turn that transforms the Walnut to Delilah’s Den, sans the poles.
You can see Martello’s control as she introduces the number. A little glint in her eye informs that an eruption of carnal longings and sexual talent is about to take place. No glint or shedding of glasses can quite prepare for the volcanic catharsis in store.
Never one to stint, and almost irrepressibly naughty when given the chance in comedies, Martello delights in her invitation to bust out of her character’s close-confining shell. You see the avid will this always exquisite performer has to entertain. Nothing is beyond her physically or salaciously. A number that would have been good under most circumstances becomes a triumph to behold. I would want to record it for my highlights reel of outstanding personal moments in Philadelphia shows. Dolly Parton can be as mundane as she can get away with in every other number. By giving us the chance to see Martello in “Heart to Hart,” she gets a free pass to mildly amuse us with the remainder of her material. Besides, savvy pros like Hoty, Bodnar, and Rose eke what they can out of a song, and choreographer Michelle Gaudette helps with some lively dances.
It isn’t that the majority of Parton’s score is dreadful or unlistenable. It’s that it’s ordinary, too typical of the lazy rhymes, dime-thin sentiments, and dully told stories that pass for Broadway tunes these musically shallow days.
Parton mostly writes what I call “declarative songs,” strings of rhyming simple sentences that purport to illuminate a character’s emotions and musically relate what a person is feeling, but which in reality come down to a laundry list of hackneyed phrases and greeting-card philosophy.
Parton is enough of a musician to give her tunes some life. Her songs are not as boring as many you’ll hear in current theater, but they are lyrically obvious and pass time, occasionally with some lilt or zest, rather than imparting anything you have to hear a character sing or an ensemble express through music.
Bruce Lumpkin’s cast at the Walnut never lets any number flag. Dee Hoty is welcome on any stage at any time that I in the theater, and she brings her talent and her character’s sensibility to songs, whatever drivel they relate, while Bodnar and Rose do the same, Bodnar having the advantage of presenting “Backwoods Barbie.”
Michelle Gaudette doesn’t get the chance she had rhythmically to create magic on the Walnut stage, the way she did with last year’s “In the Heights.” Her dances remain pretty standard in style, but the movement in them gives some semblance of excitement that carries over to the show in general and provides bursts of energy.
The plot of “Nine to Five” is familiar to the millions who saw Colin Higgins’s 1980 movie, written by Higgins and Patricia Resnick, who also provided the musical’s book.
Three secretaries — It’s 1980, they’re secretaries. — at a large, busy corporation become unhappy with their treatment, more in terms of rules and being passed up for promotion, than with the actual work they are assigned. During a post-work bonding session that includes joints of “Maui Wowee,” the women crack each other up by each hallucinating how she would kill their mutual boss and reporting her method to the others. By odd coincidence, on the day after the pot-induced laughfest, one of the trio believes she has inadvertently put her dream into effect. In the mayhem that follows, the women have a trick played on them by the boss and exact revenge by hogtying him and holding him hostage in his own house.
The premise is clever, and even hilarious, in its way. It’s certainly plot enough for a comic movie or musical. On stage, where the convenience of cutting and showing things from different angles is far reduced from what is in in movies, the idea becomes more clumsy and even a bit unsavory. The theater version of “Nine to Five” makes it more difficult the secretaries can get away with kidnapping their boss and makes the penalty of the women going to prison a lot more immediate.
Resnick’s gambit just doesn’t seem as funny on stage. Also, because images of the boss, Mr. Hart, played ably by Paul Schoeffler, in bondage are painstaking to extend for long, more has to go on at the office than at the site where Hart is being kept. It limits whatever “fun” the ladies can have with their victim.
And he does seem like a victim more than a man who is receiving deserved comeuppance from employees he has wronged.
“Nine to Five” becomes more of a problem play — What we do with Mr. Hart now that we have him captive? — that a comment on office politics or justice.
Resnick doesn’t come up with a rock solid solution. She plays at feminism and the inequity of working women. Although the second of those issues is discussed to this day, it is approached in a smug and shallow way that invites politically correct response rather than making a salient point and establishing a moving case that justifies the heroines’ actions. Resnick is just as predictably kneejerk and narratively flimsy when she has Hoty’s character, Violet, take over the office and change policies that allegedly make the company a better, more upstanding, more productive business.
Of course, all of her solutions come from the simplistic pages of populist political doctrine — What else can you expect from show business, especially from a writer who is Hollywood oriented? — and make no sense in real life, even though they are feel-good and accepted enough as ideas to be used successfully in a musical.
So, more than most shows, even those with only one basic dramatic plot detail to rely on, “Nine to Five” is dependent on its actors, and how much they engage you, to carry it.
Here the Walnut and the Walnut audience is lucky.
Despite Resnick’s fiscal and political naiveté that may demean the lead women characters more than building a case for empowering them, Dee Hoty and company keep “Nine to Five” likeable, watchable, and entertaining.
You may not be enthralled, or even amused, by the women’s criminal antics, but you may take interest in each of the lead’s desire to be independent or a good partner.
Hoty’s character, Violet, is the ultra-competent office supervisor who knows every detail of every task and can keep the administrative side of an operation running smoothly and happily.
Violet is exasperated because people are so dependent on her. She is also miffed because no matter how hard she works, or how well she keeps the support side of the company running, she is never recognized for her talent and is always passed over for promotion to an executive job by a — you know what — a man. (Gasp.)
The trouble is Violet is not whining or griping for political reasons. She is the backbone of her office, the person who trains new personnel, the one who comes up with innovative ideas to get things done more efficiently, and the one who solves problems before her boss has to face them. She has shown the leadership and prowess to rate a higher, more responsible position.
The woman is a gem.
So is Dee Hoty.
If I had to nominate the most unjust anonymous lead actress in American musical theater, my vote would go to Hoty. She reigns as the single best Phyllis Stone I’ve ever seen in the musical, “Follies” (and I saw Alexis Smith, who originated the role). Her singing of “In Someone’s Arms” from the otherwise forgettable “Will Rogers Follies” is one of my favorite tracks from the ’90s and occupies a honored place among my iTunes. If you want an actress who can endow a character with authority and wit, Hoty’s your gal.
Hoty dominates the Walnut’s “Nine to Five,” even though both of her co-stars have flashier numbers, Schoeffler’s Hart is more distinctive, Mary Martello aces a show-stopper, and Ben Dibble plays a sweet mooncalf of an admirer.
From the beginning, Hoty takes focus as harried, no-nonsense leader whose maturity, not so much in years as in attitude and deportment, sets a standard and whose patience is not of the kind that suffers fools gladly. Hoty’s way with a one-liner, whether it’s meant to be sarcastic, instructive, or just a good gag, is impeccable.
You come to see that Violet will give some leeway to people who try to improve or who only need some direction, but in general, she is a woman to be reckoned with. Better to find another job than to land on Violet’s bad side.
Amy Bodnar’s Doralee, unfortunately, has landed there. And not through much fault of her own.
Office gossip, believed by Violet who has witnessed circumstantial evidence, says Doralee is using her considerable good looks and hubba-hubba figure to advantage with Hart and that she is a loner who will make her own way without trying much to fit in with the other secretaries.
Nothing is further from the truth. Even though Violet tells a newcomer, “We don’t like her,” when Doralee passes, Doralee is a new transplant from the South who wants to make friends in the big city where she’s come to live with her husband. She is outraged that anyone would think she would use her endowments to advance herself and angrier that Hart would intimate that he and she are having an affair.
Bodnar plays her part with warmth. She is able to convey the hurt Doralee feels while also exuding the energy and spunk that is part of her character. She is especially good in the scene in which Doralee tells Hart what she intends to do to him if she catches spreading more false rumors about them having a relationship. Without giving the punch line away, I’ll only ask, “Have you ever heard the one about the shotgun and the private parts?”
Doralee, being the Parton surrogate, has “Nine to Five’s” best song, “Backwoods Barbie,” in which she talks about being a poor, uneducated country girl who develops sophistication and sensibility, along with some physical attributions that garner notice.
Megan Hilty, who originated the part of Doralee on Broadway, may have played a television character who competes to play Marilyn Monroe in a musical, but Bodnar resembles MM more in her “Nine to Five” wig, costumes, and makeup.
Let’s put it this way. Designer Colleen Grady did not dress or appoint Bodnar in a manner that would hide her assets.
Doralee wins Violet’s regard, and Bodnar earns the Walnut audience’s applause for her complete and affecting performance. The actress has also played the femmes fatales in the Walnut’s “Producers” and “How to Succeed.” Who’s next, Adelaide?
Amanda Rose strengthens the threesome with her smart portrayal of Judy, who begins the show as a mouse that embarks on her first job ever as she nears age 40, and who cannot tell a copier from a stapler, but develops into a businesswoman with Violet’s toughness and Doralee’s determination.
The scene in which Hoty, Bodnar, and Rose bond over pot is held in control and kept funny, as opposed to gratuitously riotous, by the actresses’ skill as individuals and as a trio.
Paul Schoeffler does not couch the boss, Hart’s, misogyny or sexism with much subtlety.
Schoeffler doesn’t even try to mask Hart’s lustful ways or disdain for women. He makes his character seem out of date even for 1979, when Resnick sets “Nine to Five.”
Schoeffler’s strident approach makes it understandable that the women he torments might want to exact some vengeance, but he also comes across as a man who would rather manhandle a woman than let her tie him up or subject him to pain. He certainly doesn’t seem like someone who you’d find helplessly dangling in midair while hooked to a winch.
The actor does what he must for the part, but I think he would be more effective if Hart did not show his chauvinistic stripes or undiluted disdain for women so soon or plainly. We should have a moment’s doubt about whether Violet’s assessment of him is right or a product of her general resentment. Yes, Hart begins by making offensive comments, but maybe if he seemed to muttering them, rather than braying them, they’d go further comically. Schoeffler is so direct, Hart becomes a one-note character whose fate does not interest us much.
Lumpkin should have tried harder to make his male lead look less perfunctory.
The Walnut’s “Nine to Five” benefits from several performances that bring minor characters to vivid and memorable life.
Ellie Mooney, already admired for her excellent work in “The Rise and Fall of Little Voice” and “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” is hilarious as an office drunk who has something wry — rye? — to say on several occasions and always enters the action in a natural way that doesn’t make it look as if her character is intruding or incidental. Maria Konstantinidis finds the right tone to play an office chatterbox who is singled out by Martello’s office snitch for reprimand. Fran Prisco is deft at polite firmness and at shoveling out false sincerity in scenes as Judy’s ex-husband.
Ben Dibble garners as much attention dancing like a whirlwind in Gaudette’s production numbers, but he also comes across as an ordinary guy from the office who wants a chance to date the widowed Violet.
Even if Mary Martello did not have her breakout number, she would have made comic hay as Hart’s proud and snooty assistant whose observant eye is tantamount to a white glove checking furniture for dust and whose glee at making mischief is obvious even as Martello’s character behaves as if she could be the soul of confidentiality.
Martello’s performance of “Heart to Hart” is extraordinary and shows, once again, how capable this actress is of playing any role in the entire canon of dramatic literature.
The Walnut’s “Nine to Five” begins and ends with Dolly Parton, appearing on film from a clock in the top center of the stage proscenium and introducing both the show and various lead characters. As usual, Parton is winning on sight, and by including her in the proceedings, the Walnut benefits from Parton’s appeal and gives the audience a pleasant surprise. The footage of Parton did not appear in the original Broadway production. It was shot for “Nine to Five’s” national tour and is now including in the package that comes with the license to mount the musical.
Robert Andrew Kovach’s set conveys a corporate office well, although I wonder why the view from company headquarters and Violet’s apartment is the same.
Colleen Grady matches costumes to characters perfectly, even to the point of having Dibble’s accountant wear a tie with a short-sleeve shirt. Paul Black’s lighting accentuates the fantasy scenes during the pot sequence and adds a touch of comedy in a scene in which Violet is doing some electrical work.
“Nine to Five” runs through Sunday, October 19, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 2 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, and 7 p.m. Sunday. No matinees are scheduled for Saturday, September 20 or Thursday, October 9. No Sunday evening show is set for October 5. Tickets range from $95 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or by visiting www.walnutstreettheatre.org.