Stage Door: Happiness, Accent on Youth, 9 to 5

06/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For New Yorkers, getting stuck in the subway is a familiar scenario. A train halts, an incoherent voice blares over the tinny loudspeaker, and we wait - usually with a slight panic. In Happiness, nine New Yorkers get stuck in the morning rush - but when the train stalls, a more existential moment awaits. Before the ensemble in the Susan Stroman-directed musical can move, they have to recall - and the show will re-enact - a perfect moment in their lives.

Take note: This isn't a feel-good funfest; the stakes are high. Guess wrong and like Sisyphus and his rock, you're doomed to repeat the same trip over and over. Those making the journey crisscross class, race and politics: a right-wing radio shock jock (Joanna Gleason), an interior decorator (Ken Page), a high-powered lawyer (Sebastian Arcelus), intermarried interns, (Robert Petkoff and Pearl Sun), a doorman (Fred Applegate), a chic woman (Jenny Powers), a senior citizen (Phyllis Somerville) and a bike messenger (Miguel Cervantes). They are guided by a no-nonsense conductor (Hunter Foster).

Now at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Happiness has a jazzy score and clever lyrics, thanks to composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie, who also did Grey Gardens. They have a gift for understanding the subtle contradictions in people and exposing the vulnerability beneath a polished exterior. It's also one of the few musicals this season not based on a movie, which is hugely refreshing. Book writer John Weidman has captured a recognizable microcosm of New York during our intermission-free ride of self-exploration.

Stroman has expertly directed her solid cast. Each actor serves his or her character well. The theme may be familiar, but it's still memorable and poignant. Audiences will be discussing Happiness long after they leave the theater.

By contrast, Accent on Youth , a tart valentine to the Great White Way, is being revived at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. When it debuted in 1934, Samson Raphaelson's screwball comedy was probably a welcomed respite for Depression-weary audiences, thanks to his glam Sutton Place setting and witty one-liners. His colorful jabs at producers and actors still ring true, though it would have been cozier to stage off-Broadway.

It opens with David Hyde Pierce, who made his name in Frasier and scored a Tony in Curtains, as Steven, a 52-year-old playwright spinning a tale about a 60something playwright who falls for a woman half his age. What sounded risqué 75 years ago is conventional now - especially in a city where money and power are the ultimate date bait. What hasn't changed is Raphaelson's gift for zingers and an amusing storyline, complete with classic Thirties characters: a stand-up manservant (Charles Kimbrough), an inebriated actor (Bryon Jennings), a matinee idol (David Furr) and a former flame (Rosie Benton).

When Stephen's secretary (Mary Catherine Garrison) reveals her feelings for him, the play-within-the play, and its weary-world musings begin. Accent on Youth, a lighthearted romp, has its moments, just not enough.

Neither does 9 to 5 at the Marquis Theater. It's a retread of the 1980 film co-starring Dolly Parton, who has written the show's lyrics and music. In fairness, the entertaining leads, Allison Janney of West Wing, Stephanie J. Block and Megan Hilty, the "backwoods Barbie in a push-up bra and heels," click. The trio embrace their roles in a tourist-ready show that's fun, but dated.

True, the musical nicely captures the sexism and sexual harassment commonplace in past decades, but the revenge fantasy of killing a misogynistic boss (played by Marc Kudisch with relish) seemed more relevant in the 1960s and 1970s. Sexism certainly hasn't disappeared; but these days, we fantasize about roasting investment bankers over an open flame.

Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography keeps the action moving; it's serviceable rather than eye-popping; similarly, Parton's songs are jaunty but unmemorable. A small comic turn by Kathy Fitzgerald as the boss' besotted office manager is a standout. The accomplished leads do their best with thin fare, but 9 to 5 should have stayed on screen.