By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (‘Steppin’ Out’)
Given the interest in country music driven by Ken Burns’ current PBS series, it might surprise some diehard country music fans to learn mega-talented singer and songwriter Dolly Parton had actually penned an entire Broadway score of her own music.
Bowing on Broadway in 2009 at the Marquis Theatre, the original cast of Parton’s 9 to 5: The Musical is based on the popular 1980 film in which she starred opposite Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.
While it was relatively short-lived on the Great White Way (closing after only 124 performances), it did snag a Tony Award nomination for Parton’s lively and impassioned score as well as nominations for leading actress Allison Janney, featured actor Mark Kudisch and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who had won the first of his three Tonys the year before for In the Heights.
The show enjoyed a second life as part of a national U.S. tour, missing New Orleans and then a national tour in the United Kingdom from 2010 through 2012. A show that has demonstrated it possesses remarkable legs, a production in London’s West End production opened earlier this year.
With that as a backdrop, the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts elected to present the regional premiere of 9 to 5: The Musical for its season opener this weekend.
Directed by Gary Rucker, the show is packaged with music and video components that project images and recreate much of the charm of the original Broadway production. With his co-artistic director Kelly Fouchi, Rucker also turns time back one previous decade as he welcomes Megan Harms to Rivertown Theaters in the important role of Violet Newstead.
Megan and her husband Lucas, were the other half of the producing team of Fourfront Productions, which was founded 11 years ago with Rucker and Kelly. When the two Harms began to raise their family, they pulled back from as active a role in theatre producing, which led Rucker and Kelly to create Theatre 13. Eventually, Theatre 13 was awarded the contract as artistic directors at Rivertown.
Megan Harms is terrific as Violet, singing and dancing her way in the role that was originated by Janney on stage and Tomlin on film. Her big number, in which she dreams of becoming a CEO, is Act II’s “One of the Boys.” Harms belts out the song as she dances with male members of the cast in support across the Rivertown stage as if to say “I’m back!”
Joining her in the other two key female leads are Meghan Kessel as company newcomer Judy Bernly and Emily Bagwill as Doralee Rhodes, the blonde bombshell role made famous by Parton in the film and Megan Hilty on stage. Kessel is a legitimate music director who possesses a beautiful, strong voice. Her emergence as a confident woman is seen in Act II’s “Get Out and Stay Out,” an anthem for all abused and maltreated married women.
Bagwill is charming in her big number “Backwoods Barbie” in Act I. Company workers are avoiding her because they believe she is sleeping her way to the top with company president, misogynist and chauvinist Franklin Hart, Jr. (Ken Goode, Jr.). Bagwill has already proven herself a talented performer on stage. This may be the breakout role she deserves as she finishes her studies in theatre at U.N.O.
Goode is perfectly cast as the sleazy Hart, a boss who has designs on most of his office workers, but most especially on Doralee, about whom he has been spreading the vicious rumors. In “Here for You,” Goode has a chance to inform the audience of how lewd and licentious he can be in his lust for the blonde.
Meanwhile , Chrissy Bowen plays sycophant and office manager Roz Keith to a tee. Whether professing her undying love for her boss in “Heart to Hart” or expressing her need to improve herself in “Change it,” she is charming and talented.
The three female leads get their chance to even up things with both the meddlesome Roz and their ruthless boss when, in order to save their jobs, they are forced to abduct Hart while looking for a way to redeem themselves. They sing about their hopes and designs in “Shine Like the Sun,” the Act I closer.
While Act I does include a great deal more exposition than the second act, the resolution of the entire book shows a transformation for all the cast members, most especially those of Judy, Violet, Doralee and their co-workers. Even the office snitch, Roz, undergoes change during the period that her boss is “tied up,” literally and figuratively.
Other noted cast and ensemble members include Ryan Nocito as Joe, a love interest for Violet; Carrie Black as Missy and Allee Peck as Margaret, the office dipsomaniac.
The choreography by Frannie Rosen with assistance by Kate-Lyne Hecker is outstanding and the musical direction by Frank von Hoven, who also plays the role of Dick, is also very good. Costumes by Kaleb Babb are also nicely executed.
The book for the show was written by Patricia Resnick, who came up with the story for the original film and co-penned the screenplay in 1980 with Colin Higgins (“Harold and Maude,” “Silver Streak” and “Foul Play”) in 1980. Higgins, who worked as both a screenwriter and a director, had a far more successful film career than Resnick, but he died in 1988.
Had Higgins been alive for the musical reboot, it might have proved to be a better vehicle than what was largely a rewrite faithful to the film and, no doubt, championed by Resnick.
Resnick, who also penned the Parton film vehicle “Straight Talk,” stays fairly close to the plot line of her original film, which unlike another film from the same era, “Tootsie” was updated in a significant fashion when it opened on Broadway earlier this season.
For the most part, though, Rivertown Theaters has selected a show and produced a version of which Dolly Parton and others could be justifiably proud.
9 to 5: The Musical continues at Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, 325 Minor Street in Kenner, through September 29. Showtimes are at 7:30 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. Tickets can be found here or call 504-461-9475.