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9 to 5 the Musical

  • Theatre, Musicals
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  1. The cast of 9 to 5 the musical pose on stage underneath a huge sign that says '9 to 5' adorned by a giant alarm clock
    Photograph: David Hooley
  2. A woman in purple points and stands over a businessman sitting in a chair
    Photograph: David Hooley
  3. Three women look shocked as they stand over a body covered in a white sheet on a gurney
    Photograph: David Hooley
  4. The cast of 9 to 5 stand in front of a set decorated to look like the entry to a skyscraper office tower
    Photograph: David Hooley
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Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

The ensemble, under the original direction of Jeff Calhoun, are terrific, but it's a show that should have clocked off years ago

At the very end of 9 to 5: The Musical, Dolly Parton herself (who has been appearing on stage throughout via a recorded video projection) tells the audience who liked the show to spread the word as widely as they can. She then tells those who didn’t to “keep your mouth shut”.

It’s a joke, of course, but it has that whiff of naked aggression that tends to sit under the surface of all that southern gentility. This is a musical that doesn’t just beg you to like it, it threatens to shove a gag in your mouth if you don’t. So perhaps, in the spirit of politesse, we should start by talking about the things that work in this musical adaptation of the 1980 film.

This is the story of three women employed in the corporatised world of high finance who plot revenge on their conceited, abusively misogynist boss. It starts with the eponymous song Parton wrote for the film, a peppy zinger that neatly establishes a mood of bright, satirical fun. If the rest of the songs – written by Parton specifically for this version – don’t match up, '9 to 5' itself proves enough of an earworm to have you singing long after the curtain falls.

The ensemble, under the original direction of Jeff Calhoun, are terrific; Lisa Stevens’ slick, perky Broadway choreography is delivered with precision and real heart, and every number that requires the entire cast comes vibrantly to life. The three leads are also excellent: Marina Prior is Violet Newstead, the office gun consistently overlooked for promotion; Erin Clare is the blonde bombshell Doralee, wrongly accused of sleeping with the boss; and Casey Donovan is Judy Bernly, newly entering the workforce after being dumped by her husband for his secretary.

Prior’s vocal prowess has diminished over the years and she struggles with pitch on occasion, but she delivers a robust and likeable portrait of professionalism worn down by the incompetence of others. Clare is strong as the steely PA sick to death of the sexualisation and objectification she’s endured, and she has a lovely, country-inflected voice, even if she doesn’t get much of a chance to exploit it.

Best of all is Donovan, dramatically and vocally pitch perfect as the shy and sweet wronged woman growing deliciously into her power. She gets a decent showstopper of a number late in the second act, 'Get Out and Stay Out', and it does indeed stop the show.

With apologies to Dolly, that’s where the good news ends. Because, while 9 to 5 dresses itself in feminism’s robes – the original film’s simplistic triumph over a single chauvinist was always a poor substitute for structural change – it utterly fails feminism’s central ideology, which is to treat all women as intrinsically deserving of respect.

Caroline O’Connor, in an indignity to rival Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, plays a character called Roz, hopelessly in love (although we only ever see evidence of lust) with the vile boss, Franklin Hart Jr (Eddie Perfect). Conniving, duplicitous, decidedly anti-feminist, Roz spies on and undermines the other women in the office while debasing herself for a man who barely deserves to be spat on.

She has a number late in the first act, 'Heart to Hart' (get it?), where she reveals this infatuation to the audience, and although O’Connor is brilliant here – her brassy vibrato, her high-kicking legs, her delightful impishness are all on display – she is basically being asked to sell the unsellable. Perfect is also hamstrung by the cartoonish villain, so boorish and uncomplicated a misogynist, he never feels remotely threatening.

One could argue that the show is set in the 1980s and gender politics was that dire back then, but that isn’t much of an excuse for the kind of unreconstructed sexism underpinning this show’s characterisations and plot mechanics.

The musical premiered on Broadway in 2009, and since then an entire revolution has occurred; we’ve had the fall of Weinstein and Epstein, the Women’s March, and the overturning of Roe v Wade in the US; we’ve had Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech, Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins in this country. Surely, we can ask our theatre to be current, to speak contemporaneously even about times past.

This is a terrific production of a show that, by all rights, should have clocked off years ago.

Written by
Tim Byrne

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