Yearly Archives: 2008

Rachel Getting Married

Recovering from this film took me an entire evening. I’m still haunted and disturbed by it several days later. Leaving the theatre, I felt like I’d spent two hours strapped under the carriage of an RV of family dysfunction. The family in question in Jonathan Demme’s nearly documentary rendition of Jenny Lumet’s script suffers from an unspeakable tragedy that forever changes their relationships.But the tenor of their interactions—with all the impossible need, utter miscommunications, and badly timed interventions—
sounds like the raw, rough material of the damages all families inflict on one another without even really trying.The acting in Rachel makes the family’s moments of cutting pain and humiliation believable and fresh. The script’s improvisatory mood, and Demme’s ability to lurk so intimately in each scene, his camera unobtrusively capturing the fleeting emotion in every facial muscle’s tick, brings the viewer close to sisters Rachel and Kym and makes it difficult to avoid empathizing.The story resembles any number of recent films. Margot at the Wedding comes to mind, in which Nicole Kidman delivered her own wrenching version of the Anne Hathaway role in Rachel as the troubled sister returning to celebrate her sibling but who manages to pull focus and wave family history with full-flag martyrdom and unhappy misanthropy.

The particulars here make the story poignant and searing. Rosemarie Dewitt’s turn as Rachel, whose nuptials organize the plot, and especially Hathaway’s vivid portrayal of her recovering drug-addicted sister, Kym, offer two of the richest, most complex performances by women I’ve seen on screen this year. Their ambivalent bond is based in the deep camaraderie of shared personal history, tempered by their mutual grief and loss and the blame Rachel can’t help placing squarely on Kym’s shoulders. They simmer in a stew of hatred and love, recrimination and understanding from which it’s difficult to look away, even as it’s excruciating to watch.

Kym’s addiction and tragic irresponsibility undergird the family’s dysfunction, but Rachel’s success lies in its ability to spread the blame for their inability to repair their loss and move on. Kym’s self-immolating guilt makes her the unwelcome dark side of the forcefully happy wedding event. But Rachel’s voracious need for attention and her bitterness over years of parental neglect as she was overshadowed by Kym’s more obvious wounds and traumas make her wedding day an emotional minefield.

The forced gaiety barely covers Rachel’s insatiable need to be the center of attention, a desire foiled when Kym arrives fresh from rehab to attend the festivities. Watching Dewitt and Hathaway push and pull at each other and cry out in their very different ways for their father’s attention, it’s easy to see how blame for the family’s dissolution distributes equally among all its members.

Their father, Paul, played beautifully by Bill Irwin in a whirling dither of desire to be happy at all costs, tries valiantly to attend to Rachel, his theoretically healthy daughter, while his always present, indelible, guilt-driven concern for Kym and her whereabouts undoes his best intentions.Their mother, Abby (played by Debra Winger, in a brief, truly virtuosic appearance), has flown the family, remarrying to a man untouched by their traumatic history. (Or by much of anything else; he’s a bland, nondescript cipher compared to Irwin’s always moving, mercurial spinning top of a man).

Abby’s barely contained, long-simmering anger flares in a remarkable scene between Winger and Hathaway toward the film’s climax, when perpetual questions of blame and accusation boil over into a series of physical, as well as emotional, blows that land exactly where they do the most harm.Kym seeks out her mother at her home, a marvel of clean, contemporary lines sparely furnished, as empty and controlled as Winger’s exterior, yet roiling with the violence of suppressed recrimination.The scene’s predominant décor is a large stone wall against which the two tangle, an ironic metaphorical juxtaposition with the flowers that Abby provides for Rachel’s wedding.

When Kym breaches their uneasy truce, which is based on not asking the questions that torture them both, the mother and daughter fly at each other in rage, slugging one another’s faces and drawing blood that releases nothing. The scene is both shocking and sad, as it taps the unspoken only for a moment, then locks it back up and puts it away. Still, that it insists Kym isn’t the only one to blame is one of the film’s achievements.

Rachel Getting Married also demonstrates that the families we create are often those more willing to truly listen and to forgive. Kym’s scenes at the 12-step meetings she attends while she’s at home reshape the stereotype of how these groups are typically portrayed in pop culture. The testimonies are warm and wry, self-knowing and revealing, offered by people committed to their own recovery but fully aware of how often it does and doesn’t work, of how many times they can look forward to crawling on and cruelly falling off the wagon of sobriety.

The people at the meeting Kym attends are practiced at listening in ways her biological family can’t even hope to emulate, so entrapped are they in the narratives to which they mistakenly cling to help them survive. Although few of her fellow 12-steppers speak, Kym’s scenes with them work like oases of calm and care in a family desert of otherwise scorched earth emotional travel. These folks listen without judgment; Kym’s family can’t hear at all, deaf from the shouting that echoes down the years of their collective yet individually isolating pain.

Nothing really happens in Rachel Getting Married, but the subtle shifts in its colors and tone speak to family relationships that change in incremental, hopeful ways as the wedding weekend proceeds.The several days before the big event are only about the characters’ preparations and concern about the weather, but they provide the palette of quotidian detail against which the bold strokes of damaged relationships play out.

For example, when Kym arrives home to find that she’s been replaced as maid of honor by Rachel’s best friend Emma (Anisa George), their contest for the bride-to-be’s affections become nearly mortal. Emma’s obvious disdain for Kym, and her blatant competition for Rachel’s affections, lashes out as she pins up Rachel’s wedding gown and prepares the wedding meal. Demme reveals the most ordinary settings to be poisoned wellsprings of old conflict and recrimination, and paints the emotional blackmailing and manipulation that happens on each side of the Rachel-Emma-Kym triangle.

Other simple moments reveal equally as much. Music plays a key role in the family’s fortunes, as the their friends all play various instruments, none of which finally provide the balm everyone seeks.Always expecting the music to soothe, the constant presence of men playing guitars and other instruments irritates more often than not. Their blithely unaware strumming becomes a metaphor for the family’s desperate attempt to distract themselves from what’s really happening around them.

The ethnic-influenced idiom of their music-making signals the film’s one off-key note. For reasons never adequately explained, Rachel and her bridesmaids wear saris and the men don Nehru jacketsfor her wedding ceremony; the couple’s cake is decorated with Indian-influenced colors and designs. This peculiar Orientalism stands alongside a cast that’s almost too insistently color-blind.Rachel’s betrothed, Sydney (Tunde Adebimpe), is African American, as is her father’s replacement wife, Carol (Anna Deavere Smith, in a role that doesn’t come close to using her full range of talents).

One of Demme’s most refreshing choices is to direct a multi-racial, multi-ethnic cast performing a celebration of interracial heterosexual union without commenting on difference. But it’s also just a bit suspect that race is so insistently not part of the conversation. It’s almost as if the film continues the characters’ inability to see what’s there, extending the lines of displacement and denial in which the family becomes tangled.

Part of me admires Demme for portraying race so casually and insistently. Another part of me thinks the film protests too much by not protesting at all. The wedding’s master of ceremonies, an Asian-American (Beau Sia, of Def Poetry Jam), plays the trickster, an always upbeat, ameliorative presence whose Asianness provides the “third” between the film’s black and white families. Perhaps the Indian-inflected wedding also participates in this racial triangle, allowing African Americans and white folks to meet at the site of Asianness to which Rachel and Sydney are both Other. It’s a bit embarrassing to see white women wear saris, but perhaps that subtle discomfort is Demme’s point:that everyone here is striving to be something they’re not, trying to disguise the complex fissures and estrangements between and among them with the exoticism of something other to them all.

On the film’s web site, Demme remarks that he filled the wedding scene and much of the supporting cast with friends and family.(The kid playing the screaming electric guitar version of “The Wedding March,” for example, is his son.) Many are people borrowed from his documentary-in-progress about New Orleans post-Katrina, some of whom are jazz musicians. Other musicians in Rachel are from an ensemble of Middle Eastern people Demme met while looking for a band to play on the soundtrack of his filmJimmy Carter: Man from Plains.

Many of the film’s supernumeraries are other non-actors essentially playing “themselves,” including Demme’s cousin Rev. Robert W. Castle, who officiates at Rachel and Sydney’s wedding, and Gonzales Joseph, who plays Sydney’s cousin Joe, “the Iraq war soldier home on leave. He is indeed a Specialist in active duty, currently stationed in Fort Lee, VA” (web site). This mix of actors and non-, along with musicians imported from other Demme projects, goes partway toward explaining some of Rachel’s racial diversity.

Debra Winger’s appearance as Abby halfway through the film moved me quite a lot. Winger’s been off screen as an actress, gracefully entering her middle age without performing her life’s progress publicly as do so many younger actresses. Her features have softened; the planes of her face, so sharp in her earlier work, here seem definitively blurred, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. That is, even though her jowls sag a bit, and her limbs have thickened with the tissue of a woman’s middle years, her presence remains incisive and elegant.

The supreme dignity with which Abby holds herself at a necessary remove from her voraciously needy daughters makes her brief scenes among the film’s most compelling. When Rachel asks her guests to help her and Sydney cut the cake, hands (of many colors) pile onto of each other, covering the knife. Abby can only put her hand into the collection for a moment; she removes it almost instantly, unable to maintain contact.

Abby leaves the wedding party early, unable to assert her rightful presence at her daughter’s celebration and unwilling to pick up the burden of responsibility that real engagement would entail.She’s encased in self-protective remove that only breaks for the brief moment when Kym insists she bear equally in the burden of blame for their tragedy. Abby can’t forget and can’t forgive but it’s herself whom she’s determined to punish. The performance is entirely moving; I hope we can look forward to more of Winger’s intelligent, emotionally acute acting, since it’s so rare to see a middle-aged woman play and be a complex, compelling character.

Hathaway, as the damaged Kym, is as good as all the critics suggest. But what strikes me most about her performance is her strength. Kym might be an addict in the precarious early stages of recovery; she might use sex promiscuously for quick and superficial emotional connections; and she might be the dark presence that reminds her family too dearly of all they’ve lost. But played by Hathaway, Kym is also a woman strong enough to be the architect of her own redemption, not too broken to reach out with an unspoken but deeply felt hope that a new path to love is possible.

Despite the excruciating pain of their interactions, Kym gestures toward the family’s potential to remake its connections, and to embed their past in a fragile, tentative, but imminently possible future.

The Feminist Spectator

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k.d. lang at the Apollo

In her first bit of patter during her Watershed concert tour’s Manhattan performance last Monday (10/27/08), k.d. lang commented that playing the Apollo at such an historic moment in American history, given the upcoming election, felt “auspicious.” Her speaking voice is as rich and sultry as her singing voice, and she phrases her sentences much as she does her lyrics, so that “auspicious” became the delicious punch line of a phrase that rolled around in her mouth like a piece of chocolate.

Her cheeks already pink from singing the first quarter of her set, lang addressed the audience as though she were speaking to each of us individually, making eye contact with people from the first row to the balcony of the old theatre. Her reference to context and to history grounded the entire evening, as lang performed samplings of her new CD release alongside those from her now 20-plus- year-old songbook, from “Miss Chatelaine” on Ingénue, to her cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on Hymns of the 49th Parallel.Watershed marks her first outing as her own producer; the CD includes all new, original songs featured on her web site. In the tour performance, each number sounded as if she were singing it for the first time, just now encountering the hills and valleys of the notes, the hidden meanings of the lyrical phrases. To listen to lang in concert is to be entranced by the wonders of the moment; her presence is all about being present.

Dressed in a modified man’s suit with silky gray pin-striped pants, a steel-gray vest, and a checkerboard black and white shirt graced with a short silk magenta tie, lang looked stockier than in years past. She seemed to move more stiffly than she did the last time I saw her live, in Madison,Wisconsin, in the late 80s. In that performance at the Barrymore Theatre, lang’s exuberance was irrepressible. She threw herself around the stage, at times landing spread-eagle on her back with over-the-top campy melodrama, especially on songs like “Black Coffee,” which I remember as a post-prandial, practically post-coital public encounter. I recall her dressed in black, dancing through her songs with performative verve and all the pleasures of coded dykedom, since she wasn’t yet out. But her butch stylings were an unmistakably recognizable pleasure for audiences, even without the benefit of a coming out announcement.

In 2008, now just before her 47th birthday, Lang’s physicality has settled into a more contemplative, more fluid and subtle relationship with her music. She performed barefoot at the Apollo the whole evening, connecting with the stage boards in easy two-step solo moves around the stage. She danced over to listen to the wonderful young pianist stage right, and then to the lanky Brazilian guitarist stage left, letting the music draw her as she wrapped herself in the long mic chord and moved its stand around as if it were her dancing partner. When she wasn’t singing, lang listened closely and happily to her band, moving gently and appreciatively.

In fact, one of the evening’s pleasures was the intimacy the singer and her musicians project. Given their palpable enjoyment of one another, it was easy for the audience to feel part of a warm collectivity of respect and fellow-feeling. When lang introduced her all-male band, she said she’s confused by how, “at my age,” she came to be surrounded by handsome young men, one of the many happy laugh lines of the evening. The men who back her underlined at once lang’s female masculinity and something maternal or sisterly about her. She’s not afraid of being upstaged by their performances of masculinity and they seem utterly comfortable with hers.

When she strapped a banjo across her chest later in the evening, lang said she learned to play the instrument because “banjoes are chick magnets,” a line that produced hoots from the audience that seemed to prove her point. Twenty years after I first saw her, her queerness is now known and assumed, allowing her to play with it in her utterly guileless flirtations with the crowd.

Even if lang isn’t as physically spry as she was 20 years ago, her voice remains vibrant and captivating, its sound even deeper and richer with age. She knows how to put over a song (as Stacy said, every song she sings takes you somewhere, providing a musical and lyrical journey with a beginning, middle, and end). The consummate shaping of each number makes them enormously satisfying; it’s easy to relax into lang’s voice and her presence, to relish each moment of sound as much as she does

The set moved fluidly, with a minimum of superfluous conversation, but just enough back and forth with the audience to make us feel recognized and as present as lang and her band. She handled over-enthusiastic spectators with panache, responding with graceful dispatch to the rather boorish people who called out to her from the house.

Perhaps lang’s Buddhism helps to make her presence so magnanimous. The bright red prayer beads encircling her left wrist seemed a declaration of belief that infused her performance. lang’s calm, connected demeanor could make you believe we have souls. She emanates a grounded, ingenuous peacefulness that’s utterly appealing and always generous, a calm that doesn’t erase her sexuality but instead heightens it, making her a most seductive butch Buddhist.

The historic Apollo Theatre was a moving venue for lang’s New York appearance. Its bright marquee lit up 125th Street, and its ramshackle auditorium seemed haunted by the ghosts of performers past and the hopes of those who’ll perform there in the future. Photographs of Apollo performers line the walls on the steep steps up to the balcony; sepia-toned portraits of Diahann Carroll, Dionne Warwick, Etta James, the Blind Men of Alabama, and other African American artists provide a benign, nostalgic presence.

That the audience for lang was predominantly white (and middle-aged) somehow didn’t seem ironic, even though the venue is known for promoting the careers of African American singers and musicians. lang paid respect to the Apollo’s history at every turn, and marveled throughout the evening at how intimate and rich the vibe felt from the stage. The Apollo is steeped in the passage of time; lang caught that current and let it carry her and her audience toward a different future, one filled with simple hope.

Referring once again to the pending elections—with her wide smile, her kind eyes, her blunt fingers, and her spiky short hair all flaming with warmth and pleasure—lang said she hopes we wake up on November 5th to find that we’ve come “home.” Spending an evening with k.d. lang feels like a step in that direction.

The Feminist Spectator

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The Seagull and The Toxic Avenger

The Seagull

Hearing about—and scanning Ben Brantley’s review about—the wonders of the imported British production of The Seagull, I expected a transformative theatre experience. Imagine, then, my disappointment in a production (which I saw Saturday, 10/11/08) I found alternating between listlessness and hyperactivity, ringing dissonant tones without a clear sense of comment or critique.

The new translation by Christopher Hampton transports the play into some sort of Anglo netherworld. It also retains all the references to Russian culture, which seems jarring, considering the accents and the high British attitude of the staging. Although the variety of dialects and tones correlate slightly to the class status of each character, over the course of the long evening, the speech dulls out into a mish-mash within and between characters, making them strangely indistinguishable in their inarticulate misery and longing. Peter Sarsgaard, as Trigorin, loses his way through his accent rather quickly, but then, his vague portrayal of the supposedly great man blurs the edges of everything about the character.

Playing against such a non-entity, Kristin Scott Thomas as Arkadina appears manic and mannered, without the subtleties of depth or nuance that might layer her portrayal of the always already performative role. Her performance sounds shrill and desperate, not a bad choice for the character, but out of sync with the rest of the cast, whose performances ranged from the corpse-like pose of Sarsgaard to the dark, self-immolating, melodrama of the skeletal, hollowed-out Konstantin as played by Mackenzie Crook.

None of these actors sustain the appeal necessary to carry an audience through a long, static evening. With its atmosphere of decay and despair, the cold barrenness of the old country manor house is clear in the stark lighting and the set’s peeling paint, with the walls’ disrepaired framing, and rattling windows battered by the wind and storms that continue through the second act.Metaphorizing the torments of the characters’ souls, the production’s design had more to say about its intent than the actors.

Hints of an answer to the perennial question, “Why this play now?” (posed continually by my former colleague, the famed theatre historian Oscar Brockett) are provided mostly by the supporting cast, especially Christopher Patrick Nolan as Yakov. His bitterness at his station reads clearly as he sweats under the weight of luggage hauled back and forth, in and out of the manor house, at the whim of his capricious employer. His rolled eyes, his suffering posture, his eavesdropping on the ethically impure dalliances that his superiors carry on, all offer a glimmer of the class critique it seems director Ian Rickson wants to launch. Given the events of the day, The Seagull could be a sharp analysis of the excesses of emotion and expenditure that vex the upper class, and the ways in which fortunes are fickle and fleeting. But only intermittently does a strong point of view sharpen what’s otherwise a pedestrian production.

Perhaps the new American actors confused the issues for the celebrated British cast. Sarsgaard’s film-style technique fails to galvanize live on stage, but Zoe Kazan (late of the terrific Broadway production of Come Back, Little Sheba, in which she played the family’s seductive boarder) offers a focused performance of Masha, enacting her trajectory from hope to angry resignation with nuance and a nicely contradictory verve. Carey Mulligan, who’s transported from the UK original as Nina, does a good job with the deluded actress and her seesawing affections for Konstantin and Trigorin.Her Nina’s realization that she’s been used up and cast aside by the play’s end is one of the only sincere moments in a production that’s not carefully plotted enough by its director or its actors to move the audience from one point to the next in its emotional drawing.

The Toxic Avenger Musical: New Jersey’s First Superhero

Shifting tone abruptly, I saw this latest musicalization of the 1985 cult film at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ, Sunday night (10/12/08). This is apparently the third musical version of the film, which garnered its fame as a late-night event at the Bleecker Street Cinema in New York. Wikipedia calls the George Street’s the “definitive” stage version of the film; director John Rando (Urinetown) provides the high energy, high camp, highly imaginative staging that keeps the 90-minute romp fun, if slight.

The genre-mixing stew of The Toxic Avenger proceeds in the parodic vein of Urinetown and Little Shop of Horrors, cut with the pathos of being green from Wicked and the blood-thirsty, blood-spurting horror gore of Sweeney Todd (as my musicals-expert companion, Stacy Wolf, pointed out), flavored with the blind-beauty and the beast romance of the film Mask, spiced with the resurrectionist narrative of Rent (or La Boheme), and iced with the one-actor-playing-two-characters-sharing-a-scene conceit of Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep. The show purées its references to take aim at environmental pollution and government corruption, mapping the most politically incorrect routes possible to hit its targets and to make its points. Rando and book writer Joe DiPietro collaborate on fun but forgettable songs with piquant titles like “Who Will Save New Jersey?” “Thank God She’s Blind,” “Choose Me, Oprah,” “Evil is Hot,” and “Hot Toxic Love.”

The cartoon-ish story finds our hero, the nerdy, unrequited-in-love teenager Melvin Ferd the Third (Nick Cordero) beleaguered and bullied by two high school toughs, who pound on him routinely whenever they cross his path. Melvin loves Sarah (Audra Blaser), the blind blonde who cheerfully resists the same two bullies’ attempted rapes and anti-blind people cat-calls, while (badly) shelving books in her library job. (The irony of her position is intentional to the plot—she’s been planted there by the villain, who wants to make sure the evidence of the scoundrel’s malfeasance isn’t, literally, seen.) Through a cruel twist of fate, the bullies dump Melvin into one of the many vats of toxic waste that pollute the landscape of “Tromaville,” their humble city, and he mutates into a muscled, if desiccated, superhero. Thanks to Cordero’s adept physical transformation, when Melvin emerges from the muck, it almost seems like he’s played by a different actor.

With one eyeball hanging out of its socket, “flesh” hanging from his arms, and his head and torso covered with green slime, Melvin becomes “Toxie,” who goes on a one-monster crusade to avenge his mutation and the town’s environmental degradation. The dumping is linked to the “Evil is Hot” Mayor Babs Belgoody, who’s importing the waste from Manhattan to make a quick buck. Needless to say, by the end, Toxie wins both the environmental battle and the girl, and the bullies are neutralized forever.

Rando’s fast and furious blocking makes great use of a set centered on piles of rusted metal drums, which occasionally steam and smoke with fumes that practically smell as nasty as they look. The performers climb about on this pile, performing on its top, on its sides, or just in front of the mountain of waste containers. The center of the mound peels open to reveal additional settings:Melvin/Toxie’s home, where his dithering mother, Ma Ferd, worries that he won’t meet the right girl; the Mayor’s office, where pictures of other nefarious officials (G.W. Bush included) hang from the tilted walls; a beauty salon, which becomes the setting for actor Nancy Opel’s virtuoso simultaneous performance as Ma Ferd and Mayor Babs, with a little help from the rest of the cast, Ludlam-style; a scientist’s study; and the library, where Sarah drops more books than she realizes as she feels about for where to place them. The scenes move fluidly, and the production design keeps the sets campy, the costumes vampy, and the lighting as fast and bright as the music.

The four-man band plays from a visible, elevated scaffolding stage right, obviously enjoying themselves and the show. David Bryan’s music is mostly just loud; a few of Sarah’s songs are fun, punny ballads, but the rest of the music is crude rock-pop with amusing lyrics, pumped up with energetic movement and delivery. That The Toxic Avenger is a musical just seems an excuse to highlight its campy predilections, rather than to have it taken seriously in the tradition of, oh, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Schwartz, Sondheim (god forbid), or even Adam Guettel. The music lets the show move as fast as possible; ninety minutes fly by in good-spirited, messy fun.

The two men—“White Dude” (David Josefsberg) and “Black Dude” (Demond Green)—who play multiple roles as the supporting cast do a wonderful job as a vaudevillian pair who rotate through their characters. Aside from the dumb bullies, they perform as gay hairdressers fussing alternately with the Mayor and Ma Ferd; as Sarah’s back-up singers, in tight, sequined dresses with Supremes-style attitude; as two women of the street, in even higher heels and even more attitude; and as regular “Joes,” one a policeman and the other a sports fan. All their characters come out in quick succession for the curtain call, more evidence that backstage, someone has been working wonders with quick costume changes throughout the show.

Demond Green looks like Tracy Morgan, and performs with the same expressive, not-as-dumb-as-you-think-but-almost deadpan that makes Morgan amusing to watch. Green and Josefsberg fill the holes in the plot and the show with lots of funny business; just watching them appear as still more new characters keeps things looking fresh while the show tries to figure out what it wants to be.

The home team New Jersey audience greeted the references to their state with glee and applause, embracing Toxic’s lampooning of its reputation as a chemical dumping ground of sulphurous fog and chemical muck. That the show ends with a paean to the cleaner, more liberal meaning of “green” and a rock ‘n’ roll exhortation to stop global warning seems a bit too heavy handed, especially sung loud and proud by its toxically mint-tinted, leprous-like leading man. Facile delivery aside, ending with a progressive bumper sticker-style message fits the hit and run approach of the entire production.

The Toxic Avenger is itself a mucky caper, with everything and nothing to say about crooked politics and devastated environments. That said, I was smiling, if not outright laughing, throughout, even when the jokes were predictable and obvious and good-naturedly offensive (blind jokes, girl jokes, and queer jokes included). Watching a talented cast inspired by a talented director made up for the weaknesses of the script and the music. And hearing the audience enjoy itself didn’t hurt either.

The Feminist Spectator

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9 to 5: The Musical

9 to 5 is a silly, campy musical adaptation of the 1980 movie that starred Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, and Jane Fonda, but judging by the hilarity of the audience’s response, I wasn’t the only one in LA’s Ahmanson Theatre last Friday night who thought it was a whole lot of fun. With Allison Janney as the main draw in the wry, overworked, underpaid, professionally overlooked Tomlin role, along with Stephanie J. Block recreating an uptight, eager to be empowered Fonda and Megan Hilty giving her own physical and vocal impression of Parton, the faithful musical translation moves through the farcical story with crisp if unimaginative style under Joe Mantello’s direction.

To see three women as the leads in a Broadway musical, even in late 2008, is still great fun, as well as politically satisfying. The plot’s premise, set squarely in a historical moment of virulent materialism and overt misogyny, is that the sexist boss, Mr. Franklin Hart (Marc Kudisch, playing Dabney Coleman’s role), runs his corporate department with capricious control and focuses more on seducing his female employees than on the company’s bottom line. Violet Newstead (Janney), the steadfast office manager, trains one young man after another, only to see them achieve the promotions she deserves while she’s pushed squarely against an impenetrable glass ceiling. When another chance to move up the corporate ladder fails, a series of contrivances allows Violet to conspire with her co-workers Doralee (Hilty) and Judy (Block) to bring Hart down.

Judy is the prim, proper, newly divorced “newbie” who requires training in the quirks of office culture and Hart’s sexual and corporate malfeasance. Played by Block at first as a shivering mass of ineptitude and good will, she soon develops into a smart, dogged co-conspirator. Hart’s secretary, the buxom blonde Doralee, suffers the ostracism of her office-mates, because Hart has spread false rumors that the earnest Dolly Parton-look-alike is his mistress. Hilty (in costume) looks quite a lot like Parton, and conveys the same sense of sunny, torch-and-twang gusto.

The three women bond after a particularly bad day at work, when they retreat to Violet’s to smoke a joint provided by her teenage son (this is how we know it’s set in 1980). The women rock with contagious laughter, and spin pot-induced fantasies in which Hart gets his comeuppance. Back at work the next day, Violet thinks that she’s accidentally lived out her daydream by shaking rat poison into Hart’s coffee instead of sugar. Her hysteria prompts a series of madcap misunderstandings that lead the women to kidnap Hart, imprisoning him in his own home while they try to prove that he’s cooked the corporation’s books.

Hart spends much of the second act trussed up like a chicken in his bedroom. His hands and ankles are manacled, and when he gets out of control, the women use Violet’s garage door opener, attached to a harness, to raise him high into the air, where he kicks and screams like an out of control child.The women’s ingenuity and courage—as well as their humanity in dealing with their captive, unlike, say, the vicious woman in William Mastrosimone’s Extremities who mimics male violence—lets 9 to 5’s women get away with attempted murder.

Janney plays Tomlin’s role with equally wry aplomb. Her height alone makes her a commanding stage presence; she towers over the other two women and many of the men. But although her vocals reminded me of Rex Harrison’s, speak-singing his way through the melodies in My Fair Lady, Janney pulls off some respectable harmonies as the show progresses, holding her own through anthems and torch songs alike. She dances a fantasy number in a white silk suit ripped from the last scene of A Chorus Line, surrounded by male dancers whose moves camouflage her relative lack of skill. Janney carries off the part with the sheer force of her stage personality and her intelligent good humor.

Everyone involved in 9 to 5 throws themselves into the silliness with high spirits. Block and Hilty acquit themselves accordingly as Judy and Doralee, bringing them the sweetness and innocence that makes it easy to stomach the characters’ evolution into feminist professional determination.Kudisch plays Hart as a Dudley Doolittle type, but his over-the-top performance underlines that although the stereotype of the sexist male boss might be dated, it remains familiar and resonant.

Hart’s central henchman, Roz (Kathy Fitzgerald), plays Athena to his Zeus. Roz comes full of old pre-feminist female stereotypes: the heavy-set, overly capable woman, secretly in love with the boss, is so determined to curry his favor that she betrays her office mates, becoming a despised collaborator by enforcing Hart’s regressive policies. Mantello’s blocking makes sure we mock Roz’s crush on Hart; when she runs into his office, her large breasts jiggle in imitation of the much more seemly erotics of younger, prettier Doralee. The cheap laugh she wins makes the character and the actor seem pathetic, and the audience’s knee-jerk mirth makes us complicit in her degradation.

Sophomoric humor like this—tits and ass jokes, along with their male equivalents—knits together 9 to 5: The Musical, but its incipient feminism goes a way toward counterbalancing its offensiveness.Parton, who wrote the music and lyrics, and book writer Patricia Resnick create a tapestry of new songs and situations to flesh out the film’s scenes, all of which accumulate to represent 1980’s style proto-women’s liberation. Doralee/Dolly sings that there’s more to her than her appearance; Violet fixes the garage door opener and provides a self-actualized (if professionally foiled) role-model for her son; and when Judy’s straying husband crawls back expecting her to accept him with open arms, she shoos him out of her life for good, perfectly happy to be independent and working.

These messages telegraph Feminism 101, but hearing them in a Broadway-bound production still does a certain kind of hopeful cultural work. Although the show is set in 1980, corporate greed resonates even more in today’s failing markets. And although everyone’s now heard of the “glass ceiling,” it persists. Women in 9 to 5’s audience the night I saw it reacted with audible sounds of sisterhood, practically hissing at Hart’s antics. The musical’s cartoonish conception makes it easy (and fun) to cheer the heroines and boo the villain.

Like Wicked—which provides an entertaining intertext here, given Block and Hilty’s prior performances as Elphaba and Glinda, respectively, in the Broadway replacement cast—9 to 5 offers women the strong leading roles and keeps the men insignificant. Even Hart spends most of the second act immobilized, grunting or swearing with frustration at his captivity. Violet’s would-be paramour, Joe, is sweet but barely registers, except in a couple of obligatory duets. He helps Violet build evidence against Hart, but the erstwhile couple’s only displayed affection is a chaste kiss and some surreptitious hand-holding when they exit their central scene. Violet’s son exists mostly to provide her with the marijuana that loosens the trio’s morals and helps suture the their bond.Doralee’s husband shares only one scene with her, strumming his guitar while he listens to her complain about her mean workmates.

The show instead gives us three women getting high together, scheming together, watching each other’s backs and, as Hart languishes out of the way, making progressive changes in their work environment (albeit in his name, since no one but them knows he’s out of commission). They establish job-sharing plans that let women with children make their own hours, and a substance-abuse treatment program that lets their alcoholic co-worker get sober. They let the staff personalize their desks, bringing plants, color, and light into their grim corporate cubbyholes. The workers’ happiness increases the department’s productivity, prompting a visit from the chair of the board, a promotion for Hart (to bring multinationalism to the wilds of Bolivia), and finally, the hand up the corporate ladder Violet deserves for herself.

The musical’s implication that women executives will do things differently might now be anachronistic. Plenty of women follow the well-worn paths of conventional corporate behavior, and plenty of new companies with progressive politics are established and run by men. But still, the ethos of 1980s liberal feminism infuses 9 to 5 with good fun and unthreatening, nostalgic politics.

As a production, the musical falls short of the glitz brought to screen-to-stage translations such as, for only one instance, Legally Blonde, which managed to spiff up its live version with colorful costumes and a fluid sense of place that made up for its compression into the indoor world of an ivy league college, corporate boardrooms, and courtrooms. 9 to 5’s office set poses a more difficult challenge for its design team; it’s tricky to dance around desks, office chairs, and trash cans. In fact, the whole set is rather cumbersome, as the scene shifts from Hart’s office, to the typing pool, to the cafeteria, to Hart’s bedroom, and back, in an array of locations that gave the movie welcomed air, but makes the stage version busy and distracting.

Andy Blankenbuehler choreographs the dances around the trap door in the Ahmanson’s stage, a gaping square hole that opens when one section of the set lowers below the stage to be replaced with another. I spent much of the production worried that someone would misstep or get their timing wrong and wind up plunging into the abyss. The trap’s mechanism folds the floor up slowly and methodically each time it closes over the hole, throwing off the production’s otherwise brisk pacing. The cast moves around what comes to feel like a sink-hole center stage. Maybe Broadway’s technology can avoid this scenic stumbling block.

When 9 to 5 arrives at New York’s Marriott Marquis Theatre at the end of March 2009, it should be ready for primetime. The songs Parton’s created make it more closely resemble a jukebox musical than a conventional musical comedy; in fact, she lifts Doralee’s “Backwoods Barbie” number directly from her eponymous 2008 CD. But her torchy country songs appeal here, if nothing else because they heighten the emotionalism around plot twists that need a good bump up to make them compelling.

Approaching this campy outing with nostalgia for the original film and a healthy dose of forgiveness from the outset allowed me to enjoy its feminist-lite politics. I gave in to the pleasure of watching three female leads belt and bond and overcome male oppression with the ingenuities of farce and the spunk of woman-power.

What a way to make a living.

The Feminist Spectator

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