“It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.”
It’s one of Dolly Parton’s most sparkling quips, but it was also a catchphrase that kept repeating in my mind throughout the Australian premiere of 9 to 5 the Musical, an extremely well-heeled but often air-headed adaptation of the 1980-released movie in which Parton starred. To borrow from Dolly’s famed love of a folksy metaphor (please read with a Southern drawl), this is a show as subtle as a bottle blonde at a brunettes' convention, as delicate as a whoopie cushion at a wake, and hammier than a pork chop wrapped in bacon. But what this show lacks in nuance, it more than makes up for in feel-good factor. Yes, its toilet humour is basic and its narrative problematically outdated, but if you can surrender to the silly, stupid, schlocky joy of it all, you’re most definitely in for a good night.
The show follows the madcap exploits of three misfit women struggling under the chauvinistic yoke of corporate America. Emboldened by their unlikely sisterhood, the trio take their revenge not only on their sexist boss, but also on the misogyny writ large across the office culture of the ‘80s. All the beats of the film are present and accounted for – after all, the movie-turned-musical gambit is a tried and tested formula, so why mess with it? It’s worth noting, however, that without the nostalgia of knowing and loving the source material, some viewers may find 9 to 5’s wink-wink-nudge-nudge take on sexual harassment a little wincing – even with its final good-over-evil triumph of feminism and women’s lib, woke this show is not. And yet, the script – by the movie’s original screenwriter, Patricia Resnick – is so thoroughly saturated in a wukka-wukka brand of puddle-deep comic whimsy, it seems hardly fair to lay such hefty concerns at this show’s high-heeled feet.
With original songs penned by Parton herself, as well as the titular karaoke classic, 9 to 5 spends whatever sophistication it has on its score. Parton is a master at crafting an earworm, and the backwoods-via-Broadway arrangements transform the music’s country soul into the kind of belting ballads musical theatre fans crave. And in the hands of such an all-star cast, Parton’s music soars higher still.
As the three central heroines, Marina Prior, Casey Donovan and Erin Clare are a match made in musical theatre heaven. Prior has the serious stage pedigree to ground the role of overlooked office manager Violet Newstead with a greater degree of realism than the rest of the show dare bother with, and stepping into the teeny-tiny shoes of Parton, Clare finds just the right intersection between impersonation and original characterisation to summon a shade of Dolly without it becoming a parody. Donovan delivers by far the most powerful vocal performance of the night, which largely helps forgive her somewhat one-dimensional, pantomime-level acting. As the villain, CEO sex pest Franklin Hart Jr, Eddie Perfect is, well, perfect, delivering a performance that hits the bullseye of douche-brah realness in a way that makes this character somehow more contemporary and recognisable and yet still very much of the ‘80s. Caroline O’Connor, one of Australia’s true stage greats, offers a masterclass in character comedy as the relentlessly thirsty EA Roz Keith, somehow making the absurdity of this role an absolute highlight of the show. The ensemble is just as capable, delivering dazzling sequences of eye-popping choreo that seamlessly melt into fleet-footed transitions.
By any yardstick, this production is faultless in what it sets out to achieve. Whether or not that endeavour is worthwhile in the first place very much depends on your personal sensibilities. If you’re in search of depth, pathos and meaning, this show will leave you shortchanged. But if a fun and frivolous night of corny comedy and world-class performance is your idea of a good time, then I encourage you to say ‘Hello Dolly’.