When I first heard that Alison Janney was tapped to play the Lily Tomlin role in a new musical version of “Nine to Five,” I thought it sounded like pretty inspired casting. After all, who else had that slightly masculine swagger and deadpan delivery that could even come close to Ms. Tomlin’s brilliantly understated performance? No one. Perfect casting.
Brief side note: Nine to Five is one of my all-time favorite comedies. Maybe because it came out at a time in my life when I really needed a good laugh, and that movie struck me as terribly funny. I was already a huge fan of Lily Tomlins from her Laugh-In days, but had been somewhat disappointed with some of her ventures since then. But the combination of Lily with Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda was something akin to magic. Ms. Parton, in particular, was such a welcome surprise as the feisty and vulnerable secretary to Franklin Hart that I went back to see the movie at least three or four times in the next several months. It was a great escape from the troubles of the times.
Which makes it even more interesting that the musical should come out during a time when we are again experiencing pain. As a nation. And with the news increasingly talking of dissent among the masses, it’s the perfect time for something that offers nothing but pure escape and a few genuine laughs. And that’s where the new musical “Nine to Five” finds its place among the new crop of Broadway newbies.
Is it a perfect musical? No. Can Alison Janney really sing? Well, sort of…although there are some real clunkers. Are the supporting players Stephanie J. Block and Megan Hilty up to the challenge of taking on the Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton roles? AND HOW. While no one can touch Ms. Block’s tremendous vocal prowess, Ms. Hilty is a comic genius as the misunderstood sexy office assistant and I found myself watching her most of the time she was on the stage. I’m sure Ms. Parton herself would be proud of the way Ms. Hilty has inhabited her role. Her sincere and vulnerable performance makes you fall in love with her almost immediately.
The one thing I found particularly amusing about the show was how they copied some of the actual costumes from the movie almost identically. Even down to the blue coat Dolly Parton wore during the hospital scene. I wasn’t sure if it was intended as a homage, or whether the costume designer just didn’t have any ideas of her own, but it was a little eerie to see almost the same clothes from decades ago. (Could they all have still been in Ms. Parton’s closet?)
There were some liberties taken with the show, and some sequences condensed from the movie, but overall it was pretty faithful to the original concept, plot and characters. Violet (the Alison Janney/Lily Tomlin role) now has an office romance, and the pot fantasy sequences aren’t as effective on the stage, but the show is a nice addition to the Broadway catalog and I hope it does well in this tough economic environment. And with Dolly at the helm, anything is possible.