Dolly Parton, a national treasure, looms large over “9 to 5: The Musical.” The show, of course, is based on the 1980 film starring Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as women who kidnap their sexist boss.
Parton, of course, also wrote and sang the movie’s hit theme, a churning anthem of working class empowerment. Decades later, she wrote the music and lyrics for this cartoonish, but frothily entertaining musical adaptation of the film.
Her speaking voice even booms, goddess-like, from the sound system to open the show, offering some wholly unnecessary exposition.
“9 to 5: The Musical,” which had a not-terribly-successful run on Broadway in 2009, has since found a second life in regional theater — including the production that opened Saturday night at Metropolitan Ensemble Theater.
Charming in an undemanding way, the show is well-acted, ably sung and well-produced, particularly given the space constraints faced by director Karen Paisley. Mostly, though, the show feels like an imperfect tribute to Parton’s talent and inimitable persona.
Consider how the three main actresses performed their roles. Lee Swank Miller, a dead ringer for comedienne Heather McDonald, played Violet Newstead with verve. Katie Karel as Judy Bernly believably transformed from a mousy, jilted wife to a fiery feminist lion, showing impressive vocal chops along the way.
Neither portrayal, however, bore a bit of resemblance to the original performances by Tomlin and Fonda.
Not so for Hannah Freeman. She played Doralee as precisely the same folksy, buxom blonde that Parton played on film — a secretarial version of Dolly herself.
Freeman had no choice. Who but Dolly, or an actress playing some version of her, could credibly deliver that famed line about changing a man “from a rooster to a hen in one shot”? Imagine Meryl Streep or Cate Blanchett even trying. The line is Dolly’s alone.
Every successful show needs a surprise star — a scene-stealing supporting role that brings every other character into sharp relief. In this production, that performance is given by Valerie Bracken Dykes as Roz, the sycophantic underling who is secretly in love with her boss, the nefarious Franklin Hart (John Cleary).
Dykes makes Roz, a repressed and prissy schoolmarm — Aidy Bryant doing an impression of Margaret Dumont — ridiculous, yet hiding a volcano of lust underneath. Dykes was also the only performer on stage who brought any real poignancy to the proceedings. Her haunted, subtle rendition of “5-9,” offered the show’s only rush of genuine emotion.
Part of the problem, though, is Parton’s score, which entertains, but — beyond the immortal title track — never quite inspires.
There’s no true showstopper here and more than one number feels painfully rote. “Let Love Grow,” for instance, offers the lyric “Love can grow where you least expect it/ Take and chance and don’t reject it.” Not exactly Shakespearean-levels of insight into the mysteries of the human heart.
Perhaps if those words were wrapped in the Appalachian pathos of Parton’s country milieu, the sheer emotion of her warble would have rescued the tepid niceties. In the context of a bouncy showtune, though, the sentiment feels like a Hallmark reject.
The dialogue, too, occasionally veers off the rails, going for gags at the expense of character. Violet, for instance, has inexplicably been given a Forrest Gump-like ability to foresee the future of pop culture.
At one point, she tells someone “Just do it!” and muses that the line would make a good advertising slogan. Ugh. Another joke about the supposedly advanced technology of a new typewriter is a similar sop to the crowd, a knowing wink at How Much Things Have Changed that mostly serves to remind us that these characters aren’t much like real people at all.
More admirable, and more original, are the show’s production values, particularly the set design, which niftily squeezes multiple settings into the relatively small space of MET. Beds, desks, walls and bookcases slide in and out smoothly, creating a world that is concise, but never sparse.
If the production has a weak spot, it’s dance that barely rises to mundane. That’s excusable, though. First, the aforementioned space limitations simply prohibit any big dance numbers.
Second, and probably for that very reason, Paisley’s casting choices seem to have emphasized acting and singing chops over the ability to hoof on cue. Wise enough.
Ibsen, this ain’t. It’s not even Rodgers and Hammerstein, but it’s casually watchable and interesting, at the very least, as a pop artifact. The appeal here, in a weird way, is something like a Dolly Parton drag show. It’s a bit campy, and a mere shadow of the real deal, but even a shadow of Dolly Parton is going to be worth your while.
“9 to 5: The Musical” continues through May 21 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St. See metkc.org/onstage or call 816-569-3226.