9 to 5 the Musical (Rome Capitol Summerstage)

9 to 5 The Musical logo

I remember a review of the musical Legally Blonde that said it was “great for people who loved the movie, and want to spend $100 to see it again.” Before I attended the Rome Capitol Summerstage production 9 to 5 – The Musical, I asked somebody if the show had any reason for existing apart from its movie. “Well, the title song is catchy.”

We got to hear that song twice, anemic at the beginning and then during the exhaustive curtain call, when the ensemble finally outsang the pit band. (As Susan said on the way home, 9 to 5 is great for people who loved the movie, and want to be in it.) The song is the type of pop country that sticks in the head, and doesn’t reward close scrutiny. The 1980 film was a vehicle for stars Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, and it benefitted from proximity to the sexual revolution. Three secretaries hogtie their misogynist boss and fix the company in his absence. Patricia Resnick’s book for the stage production doesn’t update her original story except for a few winks and nudges – a line about how corporations never violate the public trust is a groaner. The faithfulness is problematic: Nine to Five wasn’t a screwball classic to begin with, and its gender politics have been stale for at least 20 years. The obvious solution would be to do a sendup, like Xanadu managed so delightfully a few years back. But that’s not Dolly Parton’s style, and her influence is all over this show.

Commercial entertainment usually comes down to the hook. I imagine Broadway businesspeople in a back room saying, “What’s going to sell our show to the tourists?” The depressing answer to my earlier question is that 9 to 5 The Musical really has no reason to exist except to sell tickets. Start with the hook, build a nice set, hire good performers, and the Mamma Mia crowd will flock. Professionalism can make any show seem better than it is (see also: big the musical); pretty soon Summerstage producers start thinking, “We could sell that.” Regional performers figure it looks like fun, the show is cast and the awful cycle continues. The best criticism I ever received came from an old English teacher when I asked if she’d enjoyed a production of Grease I’d appeared in. She said it seemed like the cast was having more fun than she was. Take this to heart, if you get nothing else out of my review: when performers are having more fun than the audience, something is wrong.

Richard K. Stoodley is dynamite as Franklin Hart Jr., aka the boss. It’s a part Stoodley can play in his sleep, but what a joy to watch him move – his oily confidence is infectious, and you figure the only reason the leading ladies despise him is because the script requires it. This is key: Stoodley shares the fun. The part is beneath him though – the second-act comeuppance for his character is awkwardly written and he can’t sell it.

Tom Althoff has a nice moment in Act II with the song Let Love Grow – although unconvincing dramatically, he’s got a matinee voice I wanted to hear more of.

Hana Meyers has the unfortunate job of channeling Dolly Parton. It’s different from the work I’ve seen her do before and represents a solid effort, but the task is unfair because it calls for an impersonation that can probably only be accomplished by a decent drag queen. I’d have preferred to see a real character but you can’t fight the hook – the song Backwoods Barbie is pure, inescapable Parton that cries out to be played as camp.

Tiffany Everspaugh also has an unfortunate job (for a show ostensibly about women’s lib, most of the women get thankless stereotypes to play.) Her character Roz is the repressed spinster who’s secretly hot for the boss. An idiotic epilogue reveals her to be gay, presumably as punishment for having such poor taste in men; as I said, the story’s gender politics have not aged well. Still, Everspaugh gets a showstopping moment in the song Heart to Hart, a single note she belts through the back wall of the balcony, earning well-deserved applause during the number. Now I want to hear her sing And I Am Telling You…

Linda LaPorte-Stoodley and Jessica Sherman aren’t well served by the script, but they have a nice moment with Meyers when they get high together. It made me think that Resnick’s dialogue might have worked better if the actresses had played the entire show this way – the scene has a naturalism the rest of the show lacks. Unfortunately, there follows a silly fantasy interlude featuring a giant teddy bear costume, at which point I wished I was high, too.

The ensemble is cruelly used. Too often they are brought back to the same little risers, downstage of the proscenium on both sides, to sing backup on song after song. By the second number their entrance prompts a chuckle and then becomes a running joke. The singing was practically inaudible and they were made to bounce around to the beat, presumably trying to look like it was fun.

When I saw a publicity shot in the newspaper, I was cautiously optimistic – the set looked neat. Unfortunately, what seemed like oversized venetian blinds in the picture was actually a poorly rendered bookshelf. Most of the set was flat and bland, especially the large, bare flat which masked a full third of the stage through long stretches of the show. Kudos to the running crew though: nice job on the scene transitions. If the set wasn’t inspired, they moved it around efficiently.

Ray Tucker’s sound was uneven all night. The leads using body mics were at different levels, and we couldn’t hear anybody who didn’t have one. At the other extreme, the sound effects were so loud my stapedial reflex kicked in.

Ellen Campion’s lighting seemed to be stuck in “rock show jukebox” mode, with random flashing colors during songs and little attention given to natural looks. The main office set was lighted “community-theater dismal” instead of “70’s office fluorescent dismal,” a missed opportunity. Front lighting in particular was lacking, very weak in contrast with too-strong overhead colors. When those colors were applied to the bounce drop they were painfully bright and absurdly out of balance. Followspot work was often bouncy and the beams didn’t match – when both lights were on the same character in front of the backdrop, that should have been a great time to match the size and focus of the beams.

Randy Fields’ choreography showed some interesting ideas that didn’t always come across. I liked how a lot of the movement tied in to the office setting. The fantasy sequences near the end of Act I allowed some full ensemble dancing, but again, these appeared incompletely realized and were time-fillers story-wise. (Why are Broadway shows compelled to stretch their first acts so far beyond an hour? As one of my companions said during intermission, “That week felt like a month.”) A small quibble: I would rather have seen the post-curtain call sing-along choreographed instead of the interminable non-dancing “having fun” we got instead. The number with the best ensemble singing should have featured the best movement as well.

A note on safety. At two points a harnessed Richard K. Stoodley was hoisted in the air, and I feared he was being lifted by an overhead pipe instead of via properly rigged block and fall. After the show I asked, and this turned out to be the case. This is amateur theater at its most dangerous and SHOULD NOT have happened. Theater counterweight systems are designed to remain in balance – when a load is put on a pipe, an equal weight is put on the arbor at the same time. The rope used to move the pipe only bears the strain of overcoming inertia. To lift an actor using the pipe and counterweight system, things are out of balance at some or all points in the process; the rope is strained by uneven forces and stagehands must apply constant force to prevent the pipe and actor from crashing back down (or up). Although the actor appeared to be properly harnessed, the method of lifting him was inappropriate. (I take back my earlier comment – if you get nothing else from my review, THIS is what you should take to heart.)

So. Too harsh? Several people came up to me during the show with their own negative impressions and said, “I want to read your review.” I doubt they shared their opinions with their friends who were involved with the show. Some of the people I knew in the cast were clearly having fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve said before that reviewing local shows is hard – who wants to hurt the feelings of somebody you know? But we don’t do our craft any favors by blowing sunshine either. The four tickets I purchased cost $70, which could have bought a nice bottle of Scotch. Instead, I subsidized actors having fun and didn’t get much in return. (A lot of money goes to royalties, so let’s share the blame with the original producers. Dolly Parton surely got her share of my admission price.)

Martin Scorsese recalled a time when he got a negative review from his friend Roger Ebert – although he was crushed, he said it helped him to do better next time. I’m not sure if 9 to 5 can ever be a good show, and many of my issues with the production are inherent in the material. But I also remember when Rome Summerstage used to blow me away; that hasn’t happened in a while. There were some good performances in this production – I hope they have better material next time.