’81 fun

9 to 5 The Musical

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

May 22 – July 2

Based on the original 1980 film of the same name starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, “9 to 5 The Musical” is a workplace revenge comedy that follows the story of three women, each subjected to sexual discrimination and inequality in the workplace. Their takedown of male chauvinism appropriately begins, via pre-recorded video with Dolly Parton (who wrote the music and lyrics) herself, introducing the audience to the story’s leading ladies and taking us into its opening, iconic title song.

This is the world of 1981, complete with of-era mentions of Atari et al. Chauvinism abounds in the workplace with unequal pay, sexist jokes and a yet unnamed, but still very real, glass ceiling for female executives, which sets the scene for a gender battle between the three disgruntled office workers Violet Newstead (Marina Prior), Doralee Rhodes (Erin Clare) and new employee Judy Bernly (Casey Donovan) and their narcissistic boss Frankin Hart Jrn (Eddie Perfect), the president of Consolidated Industries.

Tired of being passed over, harassed and disrespected the three women take their revenge by holding their boss captive while they run company under his guise. Under them, things are transformed and productivity increases. The workplace literally lightens up with Tom Roger’s set and costume design taking us from the monochromatic office of Act One to splashes of ‘80s neon and a lot of fun. Indeed, design elements bring about much the musical’s experience. The stage, for example, is framed by a string of boxy of-era computers and smooth scene changes means things move swiftly, especially during a slickly choreographed hospital scene of many moving parts and bodies, both dead and alive.    

A perfect cast fronts an energetic ensemble. There is a good chemistry between Prior, Donovan and Clare, especially as they bond over their fantasies of enacting revenge on their sexist boss and they are all given independent moments to shine. Prior is sharp as the smart widowed mother Violet, constantly being passed up for promotion in the boys’-club world. Frustrated, but not bitter, she engages us with her wit.

Clare is wonderful as the initially-misunderstood sexy country gal Dorale, secretary to Hart. She captures her blend of warm optimism and no-nonsense comic timing, and her ‘Backwoods Barbie’ playful plea to not be judged by her looks, is vocally strong, with a lovely balance of light airiness and a nip of grit. And Perfect seems to be loving every minute of his time as the smarmy sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot boss, always attempting to seduce Doralee. One of the show’s comic highlights, however, comes courtesy of stage icon Caroline O’Connor’s antics as the infatuated Roz, culminating in the fantasy tango sequence ‘Heart to Hart’ in which she confesses her obsessive love and fantasies to Hart.

The star of the show, however, is Casey Donovan. In a departure from her previous musical roles, she plays Judy’s soft-spoken meekness to wide-eye perfection as she embarks upon her first foray into the working world after her husband runs off with his secretary. Donovan makes Judy’s change into a force of reckoning believable in the subtlety of its transition. Her Act Two power ballad, ‘Get Out and Stay Out’ is an emotional highlight, moving some opening night audience members to leap to their feet is deserved end-of-song ovation.

“9 to 5 The Musical” is a fast-paced, energetic slice of nostalgia. And while it may be a pantomime-ish delight, there is still a degree of substance through some of its still-unfortunately-ironic comments about equal pay for equal work and the addition of epilogues, again told through video appearance of Parton, in which it is revealed how the character’s lives progressed into the future. For all its silliness and occasional contradictions, there is a clear, overriding message of feminist empowerment, captured in numbers like Act Two’s ‘One of the Boys’, in which Violet dreams of being a female CEO and the earlier ‘Shine Like the Sun’ which sees the three leads’ voices blending beautifully.

With no songs as memorable as its catchy titular number, the soundtrack of “9 to 5 The Musical” largely blends together. Still, the musical preserves the key elements that made the original film such an audience favourite. It is full of iconic lines and moments to delight those who are familiar with the source material, and for those who aren’t, it is still a whole heap of fun.

Photos c/o – David Hooley

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