When it says "Dolly Parton presents…" I didn't quite expect the great singer songwriter herself to pop up in a barrage of screens and introduce her own musical. As it is, her good nature and sparkle carry us a long way through a show that knows exactly who it is pleasing and does so with a lot of energy, if not a huge amount of style.
The best things about it are all courtesy of Parton who provides songs, lyrics and a generally knowing tone. The book is by Patricia Resnick, based on her own 1980 film and then in 2009 turned into a musical that is now being revived. Its tale of three secretaries (originally played by Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin) who kidnap Franklin Hart Jr, their "sexist, hypocritical, lying, bigot" of a boss, struck a chord at a time when Hollywood still knew how to make broadly entertaining movies with some kind of message – in this case, the iniquitous treatment of women in the work place.
Times change but the message still rings strong. Indeed, a couple of added jokes which clearly refer to President Trump (despite the period setting) indicate that at some levels the cause of women's equality is moving backwards. But the musical is cruder in effect than the movie; the boss here (thanklessly and gamely played by Brian Conley) is a figure of fun, not a malevolent force. The addition of a subplot about spinster Roz, being obsessed with him, gets broad laughs but feels needlessly unkind. On the other hand, since she is played with lithe grace (doing the splits in sexy undies) and great panache by the seemingly ageless Bonnie Langford, she manages to count as a plus.
And the production does move with speed (including the jettisoning of a long dream sequence) and vigour, helped by a design by Tom Rogers and lighting by Howard Hudson that use screens and projections to move with fluid brightness from one setting to the next.
There are also some good jokes, a lot of warmth and some terrific songs, not only the catchy title number, but also the wonderfully heartfelt "Backwoods Barbie" in which Dolly lookalike Doralee muses that her "country girl's idea of glam" hides her intelligence and the inspiring "One of the Boys", in which smart Violet dreams of being CEO.
Jeff Calhoun directs and Lisa Stevens choreographs with faceless efficiency. But the three central performances are all winners. As the hapless Judy, who learns self-reliance when she gives up on Dick (her husband. It's that kind of show.) Amber Davies combines a soaring voice with bright haplessness and Natalie McQueen is witty and winning as Doralee, finding just the right balance between sexiness and vulnerability. As Violet, Caroline Sheen stepped in at relatively short notice for an injured Louise Redknapp, but you wouldn't know it in the confidence and verve of the performance.
It all adds up to brash, enjoyable fun, not quite as classy as Parton herself, but perfectly pitched for its audience who are all out to forget the 9 to 5 and have a really good time.