Arts » Stage

Boss Ladies

Late Night’s long day at the office pays off.

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Before we get to the show, Late Night Theatre's 9 to 5 tribute Come Back to the 9 to 5 Dolly Parton, Dolly Parton, and how it dug its Fuck-Me-Red Press-Ons into my back, here are two observations about the audience.

First: The wild crowd on opening weekend was as much down-home Dolly as it was Crossroads hip, with lots of gals from the office hooting it up something fierce. This was encouraging, because if funky downtown life is to survive, it must sometimes reach beyond downtown. Lure adventurous suburbanites for drag explorations of the unfathomable greatness of Dolly Parton, and maybe they'll stick around for a Fringe Fest show or a Bar Natasha cabaret or even find their way back when Late Night does something more dangerous. Keep it up, and we'll have these people. Imagine it. The Applebee's crowd hanging at Nichols Lunch, giggling at the crazy Jesus car that's always at Chubby's or the Newsroom, and maybe even voting down one of those homophobic ballot initiatives next time around.

Second, that audience gobbled up Late Night like kitties scarfing Science Diet. Too often at Late Night, a couple of ringers in the back rows whoop and clap to let the rest of us know when we should whoop and clap. Last Saturday, real folks decked out in their Old Navy finest beat the laugh-trackers almost every time. No question: Late Night owned this crowd.

The crowd loved it not just because it loved Dolly (a prerequisite for basic human decency). They loved it because writer-director David Wayne Reed, aided by his hardworking cast and crew, has marshaled just about everything Late Night does well: the glorious get-ups, the bawdy puns, the dizzy set pieces that fizz as if he has crammed lemons, tequila and the entire history of pop culture into a Cuisinart and let us sip the puréed results. The Late Night crew, ace party planners all, have not so much put on a show as thrown one.

Set in the days before secretaries became administrative assistants, 9 to 5 follows a hemmed-up Jane Fonda, a cynical Lily Tomlin and a bombshell Dolly Parton through liberation by way of kidnapping the boss. Reed's script follows the plot of the movie, occasionally dashing through its best scenes nearly verbatim but often spiking them with musical numbers, fantasy sequences or inspired double entendre. One line about Dollywood is so good that it should inspire (and top, of course) a New Year's Eve countdown of dick jokes.

As you probably recall, our heroines first fantasize about murdering their sexist boss and then — through a series of misunderstandings cooked up by Hollywood to keep the leads likable — hold him hostage for weeks. A simple story but one that still stings, even in this garish treatment. This is the rare Late Night show with a plot that might actually register with someone who's unfamiliar with the original material.

And in this show, we actually care for the characters. Reed has toned down the too-amused self-involvement that has made some recent productions feel like parties given for the actors instead of the audience. The performance I caught was blessedly free of actors giggling about flubbed lines or dead air; this cast works.

As an impression, Gary Campbell's Dolly looks like a dude. But when he rhapsodizes about life back in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, his face wells up, his accent deepens, and we feel the heart and sparkle of Dolly herself. His singing sounds more Kissinger than Parton, which makes the numbers funnier without robbing them of their Smoky Mountain charm. It's a remarkable thing: Campbell croaking through "Coat of Many Colors," swathed in ridiculous gossamer butterfly wings, doesn't kill the song's feeling but rather adds to it.

On opening weekend, understudy Stasha Case filled in for Ron Megee in the Lily Tomlin role. Gifted as Megee is, I have a hard time imagining him besting Case and her peppery Tomlin expressions. Cheeks flattened, head stiffly bobbing, face immobile save for eyes and mouth and that tongue flicking out to follow up a zinger — Case simultaneously sent up and celebrated the original, mining great comedy from a great comedian.

Bill Case is good in the Dabney Coleman role, and ensemble member Spencer Brown's enthusiasm boosts the big numbers. Plus, Brown is so gorgeous, he could stop traffic in a gunny sack. Drag queen nonpareil DeDe Deville designed the costumes (everything you'd hope for) and makes off with half a dozen scenes.

With one show left in a 10th-anniversary season that has sometimes felt too celebratory, Late Night seems hungry. Here, the company strives, sweats and wins, reminding us how it made it this far in the first place. The actors can still be impish and surprising, as Reed was just last week, explaining to a Star reporter how 9 to 5 snagged more votes than any other show when audiences were asked to pick revivals: "People really stuffed the box for Dolly. "

Box-stuffing in the FYI section. That's how we'll keep downtown alive.

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