“The first few performances are like sex with the light on. They’re fun, but you might see some things you don’t want to.”
I might have paraphrased slightly – I wasn’t taking notes – but that was Jeff Calhoun, the director and choreographer of the UK tour of the Dolly Parton-scored musical 9 to 5, addressing the audience at the Opera House in Manchester this afternoon during an unscheduled break caused by a scenery malfunction at the show’s second public performance. Apparently they’ve yet to make it all the way through the show without stopping, although this afternoon they got further than they did last night. This afternoon, during the big Act Two production number “Change It”, part of a drop caught on another piece of scenery and threatened to fall down; the stage was cleared, the safety curtain descended, Mr. Calhoun came out to talk to the audience (he was charming, and very funny, and the audience loved him), and the show continued a few minutes later.
It’s live theatre, and it happens. I knew when I bought the ticket that I would be seeing the second public performance of a brand new production, it’s a complicated staging with a lot of moving furniture and drops, and it wasn’t exactly surprising that they had some technical problems. It certainly didn’t spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the show. However… when a show opens in the West End or on Broadway, the first performances (for a big new musical, anything up to the first three or four weeks or performances, in fact) are advertised as previews, which is essentially an admission that you won’t quite be seeing a finished piece of work. When you’re getting a piece of theatre up on its feet – any piece of theatre, but especially a big musical – there is work that cannot be done until there’s an audience present. Previews are when performances get adjusted, the writing is tweaked, and technical problems get resolved. Yes, sure, there are endless tech rehearsals before previews begin, but in a tech rehearsal you can always stop and start a scene again – you don’t have the pressure of having to get through the whole show without a break, which is what you have to aim for as soon as there’s a paying audience watching.
Once upon a time, not all that long ago (meaning within my memory, and I’m not that old), preview performances were sold at a discount. It’s still, I think, the case in the West End and on Broadway that discount codes are more often than not available online for preview performances – at least, if you know where to look. They are, at least, invariably labelled as preview performances in the show’s advertising and on ticketing websites, and instances where they are not have drawn sharp criticism in the press from theatre journalists.
You might have guessed that the Ambassador Theatre Group, which operates the Opera House in Manchester, didn’t bother with any of that. While it is certainly obvious from the tour schedule that the Manchester performances are the production’s first, when I booked the ticket there was no indication anywhere on their booking site that I would be seeing the equivalent of something that, in the West End, would be labelled as a preview, never mind any hint of early performances being sold at any kind of discount. Now, I’ve seen a lot of theatre, I figured it out for myself, and I went ahead and bought the ticket anyway (the Manchester run is not long, later performances here did not work for me, and it’s going to be a good while before the show is playing at any other venue that would be convenient), but it still leaves a faintly nasty taste when something that would, elsewhere, be clearly labelled as work in progress is put on sale at full price as a finished product. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me, given that the Ambassador Theatre Group’s commitment to customer service is not exactly outstanding (really – an almost twenty-minute queue to pick up tickets an hour and a half before the show began this afternoon, no facility to print tickets at home, a somewhat lackadaisical attitude towards dealing with customer complaints), but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the standards that apply in the West End to apply here too, particularly given that a top-price ticket to this afternoon’s performance, with fees, would have cost over £40 (cheaper than the West End, true, but still not cheap). If it’s a preview, call it a preview. Let the audience know what they’re buying. If the show’s only in town for a week and a half, they’ll come anyway.
All that having been said, when they’ve worked out the kinks – there were a couple of other noticeable flubs, a very obvious misplaced prop which the actors covered beautifully (the phone cord that Doralee is supposed to use to tie Hart up was not where it should have been, and Amy Lennox had to go offstage to get it), and reflections in odd places near the top of the set that suggest there’s still work to be done on Ken Billington’s otherwise fine lighting – it’s going to be terrific. It’s already a very, very entertaining show, albeit one with a few significant flaws that, at this point in the show’s slightly chequered history, are not going to go away. Dolly Parton, of course, starred in the movie (along with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin); for the musical, she’s supplied a score that’s often great fun. No, this is not one of the great contemporary musical theatre scores, but this is an appealing and effective collection of songs, and the good stuff – particularly an extended opening sequence woven out of the movie’s theme song – is really good. True, nearly all of the music sounds like it comes from a Dolly Parton album – she doesn’t really manage to subsume her own distinctive musical voice and write in character – and some of the lyrics clunk, but unlike other recent musicals-adapted-from-films that have passed this way, this score never sounds like musical wallpaper (I’m looking at YOU, Ghost and Sister Act and Legally Blonde). The show flopped in its initial Broadway outing, and the version that’s being performed here reflects the US touring production, which was somewhat revised; the order of songs in Act One has been slightly tweaked, the three separate revenge fantasies have been conflated into a single extended musical sequence (called, of course, ‘Sexist, Egotistical, Lying, Hypocritical Bigot’, which is possibly the film’s most famous line), and two songs – ‘I Just Might’ and ‘Always a Woman’ – have been cut. The book – like the source film’s screenplay, by Patricia Resnick – is fast and funny, albeit more cartoonish now than the film was; if the denoument currently seems a little breathless, it’ll probably settle down a bit once the actors have a few more performances under their belt.
And the actors, it has to be said, are this production’s biggest asset. In Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Parton and Dabney Coleman, the film fielded a formidable quartet of leads (in the right role, Parton can be a terrific screen actress); the biggest compliment I can pay their counterparts here is that they made me forget their predecessors. Ben Richards is a strong-voiced, hilariously sleazy Hart, Amy Lennox is an adorable Doralee (and has the hardest job, in that she’s playing the Dolly Parton role, and Parton herself – in the form of projected film – narrates the show’s opening and closing sequences and actually comes right out and says that Doralee is her role), Natalie Casey is pretty much perfect as downtrodden Judy, and Jackie Clune’s sassy, sardonic Violet just about walks away with the show. All four have strong singing voices, great presence, and laser-sharp comic timing; none of them are quite ‘stars’ (in the above-the-title, their-name-sells-tickets sense), but all of them should be.
And then there’s Bonnie Langford as office supervisor Roz. It’s a second-banana role with a few scenes, a mediocre song in Act One, and a reprise of the title-song in Act Two, but she cleans up. She takes ‘Heart to Hart’ – a frumpy-secretary-has-the-hots-for-the-boss number that’s just about the least interesting thing in the score, and effortlessly turns it into the production’s biggest showstopper. It helps that she’s given terrific, funny choreography (by Calhoun and Lisa Stevens), but the energy, killer belt and ingenious comic timing are all her own. She’s great, and somebody needs to write her a big old-fashioned musical comedy to star in, stat.
The rest? The ensemble have tons of energy, the bit-parts are all impeccably filled, Kenneth Foy’s witty set (drops, office furniture on castors, Hart’s bedroom) moves fluidly and affectionately mocks ugly late-70s ‘good taste’ (the bright costumes are great too, but – oddly – nobody owns up to them in the programme), the eight-piece band are impeccably tight (the sound design, though, is often muddy, and in the ensemble numbers the bass is turned up way too high – that, again, is something that tends to get worked out in previews), and Calhoun’s slick staging never lets the pace flag. It’s good now, and it’ll be better a few weeks from now. Everyone onstage is clearly having a wonderful time, and that sense of fun spills across the footlights; the writing isn’t always magical, and this performance was rougher around the edges than you’d expect from something that was not sold as a preview, but the cast’s enthusiasm is absolutely infectious, and for once the (more or less obligatory at a big musical at the Opera House) standing ovation did not feel forced.
So yes, it’s well worth going – but if you see it over the next week in Manchester, be aware that they’re still working. It’s great fun, but – as of right now – it isn’t quite finished.