You probably don’t recognize the name Violet Newstead. But you might remember who played her in “9 to 5,” the 1980 movie that turned sexism into a pop-culture feel-good moment.
Lily Tomlin was Violet, the harried single mother and talented employee who suffered under her egregiously sexist boss. Together with Doralee (Dolly Parton) and Judy (Jane Fonda), they turn the tables on the abusive executive who holds power over them. The trio of box-office stars made a statement against a male-dominated culture.
In 2009, Parton helped turn “9 to 5” into a musical. It can be a bouncy and amusing show. (A flawed one, too, and it quickly closed in New York.) The Good Company Players production, which opened Jan. 14 (I saw it the second weekend) has some fine performances and brisk directorial choices that nudge it into the recommended column for me.
At the same time, the show is never able to convincingly transform its vintage slapstick revenge storyline into anything more than mild amusement. It isn’t sure whether to embrace its dated premise or make a wry comment on it.
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Alison Allwine, a GCP veteran from years past, makes a stirring return to the local stage.
And director Julie Lucido – who once again offers innovative staging in the small Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater space – can’t always find a way to wring enough laughs or smooth narrative charm out of the sometimes clunky book (by Patricia Resnick) and Parton’s music and lyrics. (Example: The tone of the first-act finale, a rouser titled “Shine Like the Sun,” is so incongruous to the corresponding action on stage that I rolled my eyes.)
But let’s get back to Violet, my favorite character. Practical and put-upon, with a streak of kindness but also pent-up hostility toward a system that consistently undervalues her, Violet is ready to rumble, even if she doesn’t know it yet. Alison Allwine, a GCP veteran from years past, makes a stirring return to the local stage. Allwine’s vocals, dancing and acting are first-rate, and she helps infuse the show with a strength and vitality that transcends the material.
Case in point: the show’s best number, “One of the Boys,” which spotlights Violet in a sort of “Chicago”-inspired “Roxie” razzle-dazzle routine, nicely choreographed by Kaye Migaki and backed up by the show’s male ensemble. (The lyrics are a nice counterpoint to the continual references to the show’s women as “girls.”) With a radiant Allwine, it’s a soaring moment.
Lucido has fun staging the other fantasy sequences, too, including ones in which Doralee (winningly played by a Dolly-inspired Abigail Nolte, who soars on the tender “Backwoods Barbie”) and Judy (Emily Pessano, who belts out the anthem “Get Out and Stay Out” with aplomb) imagine horrible ways to off boss Franklin Hart Jr. (Teddy Maldonado, who has fun playing the bad guy).
The fantasy killings are the result of a scene in which Judy, the newcomer to the office, joins Doralee, unfairly tagged as the office bimbo, and Violet, passed over for a promotion, in a let’s-get-stoned session. (Has a cannabis congress ever been depicted before on the Roger Rocka’s stage? That’s one for the GCP archives.) That leads to a situation in which the women get caught up in a scheme to kidnap their boss and take over the office.
Just as she did in “West Side Story,” Lucido takes every chance she can get to place her actors throughout the audience in the intimate theater, which I like very much. (I think it works best when placing smaller numbers of performers. I’m not sure hustling an entire ensemble into position against a back wall looks precise enough). She also deals with a series of back-and-forth rapid scene changes, which set designer David Pierce handles in creative and innovative ways. (Lights are by Evan Commins and fun period costumes by Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed.)
Still, what this production most needs is better comic direction, particularly when the plot gets fast and furious near the end of the first act as the hijinks factor ratchets up. Laugh lines need time to resonate, and the audience needs to be clear on where the action is heading next.
Though the sexism angle is played broadly and could have felt more relevant, one great thing about “9 to 5” is the opportunity for women performers.
Take the supporting role of Roz (a standout Sharayah Veith), administrative assistant to icky Mr. Hart. For reasons known only to her, she has an inexplicably big crush on him, and as she bares her inner feelings in the song “Heart to Hart,” what could have been a one-dimensional role is transformed into something deeper.
And then there’s Allwine, terrific as Violet. She sings: “I’ll take this job and love it. … I’m a woman and proud of it. ... This old girl is one of the boys.”
Hear her roar.
9 to 5
- Through March 13
- Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, 1226 N. Wishon Ave.
- www.gcplayers.com, 559-266-9494