Productions reliving the '80s miss the decade's dumb fun.
Two blond, big-haired, big-boobed icons stare down on the action in the musicals Rock of Ages and 9 to 5. In Rock of Ages, whose Broadway tour is now at the Winspear Opera House, the guardian angel is Angelyne, the odd Mae West-like creature whose pneumatic cleavage once decorated billboards above Hollywood's Sunset Strip. Onstage, her cherry-lipstick pout is part of a kitschy parade of questionable 1980s "moments"—acid-wash jeans, slouchy boots, mullet haircuts, bottled wine coolers and Pat Benatar hits—that are good-naturedly mocked in this jukebox meta-musical.
In 9 to 5, now at the Music Hall at Fair Park, the icon is Dolly Parton, beamed in on a video screen to explain things at the beginning and end, like a twangy Glynda the Good Witch floating by on her bubble. This show features Parton's music and lyrics and is based on the 1980 movie comedy about frustrated office workers that starred Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. For the stage, it is still set in the 1980s, but a far less colorful, mockable or musical '80s than that of Rock of Ages.
The two shows, reviewed on successive nights, have almost too much in common. From their forced nostalgia for the era of Reaganomics and wallet chains to their similar send-ups of Olivia Newton-John's "Let's Get Physical," Rock of Ages and 9 to 5 do a rock-skip over the decade's dumb-fun aspects. At least Rock of Ages has rock, real rock, in the form of power-chord covers of hits by Journey, Bon Jovi, Poison, Whitesnake and Twisted Sister. Dolly's show just has Dolly's tunes. Besides the title number, "9 to 5," there are "Backwoods Barbie," "Cowgirl's Revenge," "Shine Like the Sun" and a dozen others that all sound pretty much the same, just sped up or slowed down.
Both shows play with the same theme, too, about people who want to change their lives and, in doing so, conquer some corporate creep. Rock of Ages does it a little better in a book by Chris D'Arienzo that layers in 42nd Street's story of a nobody suddenly thrust into the spotlight for a shot at stardom. The show-within-that-show happens at the Bourbon Room, Rock of Ages' stand-in for Hollywood's Roxy, where a frizzy-haired, fresh-from-Detroit bartender named Drew, played by fourth-season American Idol finalist Constantine Maroulis, dreams of making it as a rock singer. Catching Drew's eye is pretty waitress Sherrie (Elicia Mac-Kenzie), a corn-fed Kansan and aspiring actress who gets temporarily derailed into stripping. They fall in love, break up and make up. In the B-story of Rock of Ages, a German developer (Bret Tuomi) and his effeminate-but-not-gay son (Travis Walker) try and fail to raze the Bourbon Room to make way for an Arby's, or some such insult to rock 'n' roll real estate.
To save the club, the proprietor (Nick Cordero) billboards a farewell concert fundraiser by a mega-band led by the David Lee Roth-like Stacee Jaxx (Peter Deiwick). Being the opening act will give Drew his break, but first he has to win back Sherrie from the oily charm and tight white denims of heavy mover Stacee.
Bedazzling these familiar story lines are 30 rock-radio hits from nearly 30 years ago. "Waiting for a Girl Like You" becomes a love ballad. "We Built This City" is the rousing protest song. Amazingly, these tunes, etched on our musical memory hard drives, work fine in the context of the show. The driving beats provide ample opportunities for the comely chorus of dancers to shake and shimmy to choreographer Kelly Devine's cooch-centric dance steps. The finale, a raucous, upbeat "Don't Stop Believin'," gooses the audience out of the seats just in time for the curtain calls.
Rock of Ages, at times witty, at times vacuous, keeps pointing out how underwritten it is. A narrator, mic-check guy Lonny (Patrick Lewallen), wearing a T-shirt that says "867-5309," even waves a Playbill around, breaking the fourth wall to comment on the stupidity of it all. That feels like an insult to the sweetly sincere performance of Maroulis, who starred in this show on Broadway and who's at the end of his time on tour with it. With a soulful, clear voice that can explode into a powerful rock scream, Maroulis has an easy charm as an actor that wins over the audience right away. He underplays the comedy and his singing is knockout. A graduate of the Boston Conservatory, Maroulis, 35, should do more musical theater, perhaps a role that doesn't require him to keep sweeping curtains of hair out of his eyes.
Speaking of hair, 9 to 5 has a mess of it: feathered Farrah shags (even on the men), mini-mullets, towering beehives and round hair-helmets, a couple of topiary-size Afros and more porn 'staches than Boogie Nights. In her video appearance (the best part of the show), Dolly's white-blond 'do is twice the size of her head. The same mega-wig threatens to topple her onstage doppelganger, Diana DeGarmo, playing Doralee, Dolly's character from the movie. DeGarmo, another American Idol finalist from years gone by, does a Dolly impersonation in the show. Same helium-squeak voice, same stutter-step walk beneath a cantilevered shelf of gigantic bazooms.
The whole show feels like a copy of a copy of a copy of something that wasn't all that great to begin with. DeGarmo's a decent little singer but only a third-rate Dolly. Playing Judy, the divorced housewife in her first office job, Mamie Parris wears Fonda's old hairstyle but never the flinty attitude. As the Tomlin character, actress Dee Hoty looks and sounds like Allison Janney, who played Violet in the short-lived and viciously reviewed Broadway production of 9 to 5.
The characters, if you need reminding, are lowly secretaries suffering the sexist putdowns of a swinish boss (Joseph Mahowald). After smoking some happy-hour weed, the ladies hatch a kidnapping plot. They hold the boss hostage just long enough to redo company policies, adding daycare, flex time and "casual Fridays."
Working against a dreadful book by Patricia Resnick, the cast's energy is drained by pumping the script's lame women's-lib jokes and by dodging the constantly moving scenery (by Kenneth Foy). Every number ends with a freeze-tag ta-dah; every song goes on three verses too long.
Like its songwriter, 9 to 5 is freakishly top-heavy, with the first act running almost three times longer than the second and with twice as many songs. A huge clock dominates the set, a reminder that while watching this show, life is ticking away. It's over by 10:30 p.m., but sitting through 9 to 5 feels like a full day's work.
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