Friday, April 17, 2009

“She Rises!” Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography for the musical 9 to 5. Call me Ishmael.

Before his choreography for In the Heights won the 2008 Tony, as well as the Lortel, Calloway, Outer Critics, and Drama Desk awards; before he choreographed the Broadway revival of The Apple Tree, the West End production of Desperately Seeking Susan, and the world premieres of Andrew Lippa’s A Little Princess and Frank Wildhorn’s Waiting for the Moon, Andy Blankenbuehler, currently a contributing choreographer for Dancing with the Stars, worked as both a Disney and a Broadway gypsy. In the latter capacity, he appeared in the original cast of Fosse beginning in 1998. The experience seems to have left a lasting impression, for the shadow of several Bob Fosse compositional structures falls heavily across Blankenbuehler’s designs for the musicalization of the 1980 “feminist” revenge film comedy 9 to 5.

The shape of such memorable set pieces as “The Rich Man’s Frug” and “The Rhythm of Life” from Sweet Charity and “I Believe in You/Gotta Stop that Man” and “A Secretary is not a Toy,” from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying can be glimpsed on the horizon in Blankenbuehler’s work here. But he mostly fails to echo any of the idiosyncratic dance vocabulary, social satire or cynical wit that gave those earlier dances their tang and bite.

The choreography for 9 to 5, seen in its ninth preview Monday night at the Marquis Theater, seems to function essentially as transitional window dressing to cover set changes, link numbers or flesh out scenes. As such it constitutes only the merest tissue, albeit stylishly turned, in connecting or embodying dramatic elements while providing minimal muscle in advancing the action or developing character.

To be fair, there doesn’t seem to be a lot to advance or develop. With Dolly Parton as composer/lyricist and a book by the film’s original screenwriter Patricia Resnick, 9 to 5 sets sail on Broadway with a raft of accomplished hands. Director Joe Mantello, scenic designer Scott Pask, costume designer William Ivey Long, lighting designer Kenneth Posner and lighting/imaging designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, have among them accounted for a total of no less than 30 Tony awards out of 47 nominations, only one having won less than twice. But along with the rest, Blankenbuehler finds himself a castaway, lost in the wake of this two-hour tour of the film’s script set off by Parton’s tuneful but not memorable songs.

I find it hard to figure out who has taken on the role of Ahab in pursuit of this white whale of a show. The surprise-hit film relied heavily on the chemistry of its principal cast to produce box office magic. The revenge fantasy idea at its core seemed far less seaworthy with each of two subsequent refittings as a television sitcom. Even after an extended shakedown cruise at the Ahmanson Theater in L.A. featuring the same principal cast, this freighter ties up in New York as a derelict rust bucket decked out as a Carnaval liner.

The two-dimensionality of the characters on this love boat give it all the depth of a travel poster juxtaposing Allison Janney, Megan Hilty, Stephanie J. Block and Charlie Pollock as stand ins for the film’s original stars against a close-as-we-can-make-it stage cut out of the movie’s plot, dialogue and settings. The show seeks to sail past the shoals of its dated “feminist” parable without rocking the boat of the audience’s expectations for a pleasant cruise around a tried and true filmic formula.

Ms. Janney’s acting prowess has largely been tossed overboard, though she exceeds expectations fronting an all male chorus in Blankenbuehler’s most successful and elegant number. The fact that the number celebrates her ability to operate as “One of the Boys,” underscores just how glibly the show lip services its feminist stance. Hilty and Block, both veterans of the Wicked empire, get less dancing to do but predictably belt out the blonde-and-brunette style set piece ballads that made that musical re-imagining of the Wizard of Oz’s witches the box office darling of tween girls throughout the land.

Mantello appears to have repeated some of the same type of casting choices that made his direction of the Roundabout’s revival of Pal Joey, which I caught near the end of its limited run, so compelling and timeless. But choosing a strong actor (Janney) not known as a singer to portray the central female character and surrounding her with strong voiced but lighter dancing interlocutors cannot ground such a frothy book and score, and the choreography lacks the heart to help. The director may have found himself constrained in this regard by the production’s need to find reasonable body doubles for the Jane Fonda (Block) and Parton (Hinty) roles. With no depths to plumb the characters find themselves at sea, save for the scene in which Janney’s Violet finally faces up to her pining colleague and courtier Joe as played by Andy Karl. The show ultimately founders on its own effects.

No one should be surprised that the ark the producers of 9 to 5 have fashioned seeks to lift its passengers clear of the rising tide of economic deluge two by two; allowing both those who first floated along with the film’s foamy buoyancy to sit warm and dry alongside their daughters or granddaughters newly swimming in the world of work. I found myself a bit queasy in the face of the windy enthusiasm buffeting many of the youthful half of the audience, given what I see every day of the continuing challenges that younger women face in a social and economic order that has learned to say all the right things while charting and navigating ever more insidious and ruthless courses of commercial exploitation.

Would this be the kind of show Melia and Sasha might be likely to take in with their parents? Oh, that’s right, they already have a water dog. Then again, have you ever seriously pondered the success of Lobster Fest?

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