Admittedly, the actress -- best known for her Emmy Award-winning work on television's West Wing -- is no stranger to the dramatic stage. But she simply galvanizes the show as Violet, the no-nonsense secretary who strikes a resounding blow for women's rights in the workplace. True, her singing voice may not be the strongest in the show -- that honor belongs to the iron-lunged Stephanie J. Block as Judy -- but she has both a great sense of tone and rhythm and a grand sense of comic timing that allow Violet's stinging barbs to land explosively and hilariously.
For the most part, librettist Patricia Resnick's book adheres to the movie in both structure and detail (which is not surprising since she co-wrote the film's screenplay). Violet, a no-nonsense, strong-willed secretary, finds herself unexpectedly bonding with two coworkers: company newcomer Judy, a former housewife who has just landed her first post-divorce job, and Doralee (Megan Hilty), a Texan sexpot whom the other women distrust. Soon, Violet thinks she's accidentally poisoned her sexist and bigoted boss Franklin Hart (a role made deliciously repugnant by Marc Kudisch), and decides -- with Judy and Doralee's help -- to hold him hostage at his own home until they can figure out how to blackmail him so that he doesn't press charges against Violet. With Hart out of the way, however, they also manage to turn their bleak work environment into a healthy and extremely productive one.
Hilty, doing a fine impersonation of Parton, charms consistently; but she never seems to be one with Doralee or her oversized blonde wig and tight-fitting dresses (courtesy of costume designer William Ivey Long, who captures the show's 1979 period and character detail beautifully). Block plays Judy's simpering insecurity with panache early on and traces the character's trajectory to strong-willed woman with finesse, but she also seems to have not fully internalized the character. As in the movie, there are some choice secondary roles -- and Kathy Fitzgerald as Hart's besotted administrative assistant Roz and Karen Murphy as a booze-saturated secretary deliver smile-inducing performances.
The show, directed with a characteristic edge by Joe Mantello, moves along with whiz-bang efficiency thanks to Scott Pask's automated rolling and rotating scenic design, which perfectly captures the ambiance of the antiseptic workplace. Jules Fisher and Kenneth Posner's effective lighting design and by Peter Nigrini and Peggy Eisenhauer's projections and animations also fuel the sense of period with eye-popping flair.
Unfortunately, Parton's score is not particularly memorable, with the exception of the already well-known title song, Doralee's big number "Backwoods Barbie," and "Let Love Grow," a sweet ballad for Violet and Joe (Andy Karl), a younger co-worker who's romantically interested in her. Moreover, the orchestrations from the generally reliable Bruce Coughlin do little to enhance Parton's work. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler provides some spirited dances, but a quartet of dream sequences in the first act are overlong and repetitive, and dance transitions between scenes feel like they're only eye-candy filler in an already seamless staging.
In the end, it's Janney's star turn that theatergoers will truly savor -- and which makes 9 to 5 often feel like a 10!