MAGNA — The musical 9 to 5 was penned by Dolly Parton, a living legend who can do no wrong. It racked up 15 Drama Desk and 4 Tony nominations back in 2009. But the show, based on the 1980 film of the same name, wasn’t a Broadway success and closed six months later.
Thematically and technically, the musical is as big as Dolly herself; a Broadway spectacle overflowing with dance numbers and power ballads where characters bare their souls and sometimes more. Kudos to the Empress, a venue not too proud to pass around a collection plate, for taking on the massive project. There were some elements which didn’t easily make the transition from Broadway to community theater, but there was plenty to enjoy.
9 to 5 is about old-fashioned sexual harassment in the office. In this case, at the hands of sleazeball boss Franklin Hart Jr. (Matthew Green). His secretaries (which the show’s PC police are eager to interject is what administrative were actually called in the 1970’s) are none too pleased with his chauvinist behavior and unwanted advances, and plot their revenge. The book (by Patricia Resnick), music and lyrics are strong, with the most mileage coming out of Dolly’s title track, which was used in the film. The show ain’t much for thematic subtlety, instead setting out to retroactively crotch-kick a generation of pigs. This is a greasy slice of revenge fantasy. Scenes are devoted to the ladies’ dreams of knocking off their boss. Then they actually go through with it, dumping him in a trunk Goodbye Earl style and shanghaiing the creep.
It’s all laid on thick as a brick; like the Hairspray of women’s lib. The bad guys are one-dimensional, and the ladies have empowering numbers, which usually—but not always—avoid cringe-worthy lines which reduce the characters to platforms. (“I need no man/now that I’m unfettered/and unvowed.”) But while the messenger can be a little overbearing, the overall message of respect and opportunity is a welcome and positive one.
The Empress (directed by Jake Anderson) did have work hard to successfully manage the big production, but fortunately 9 to 5‘s two leads were up to the challenge. Emalee Easton is sensational as Doralee (the Dolly character). Her delightful, magnetic performance made the character as irrepressible as the superstar herself. Easton displayed great comic and dramatic timing, vocal and acting chops, and furthermore her impersonation of Parton was a natural. She fit the role like a glove, and was the bright star at the center of the production.
Matthew Green gave a solid performance as the evil, libidinous boss, with perhaps a hint of Napoleon complex. Other performances were a little more uneven. Amy Metler gave an occasionally strong portrayal as single mom Violet. She was very convincing at conveying some of the character’s emotions like annoyance and anger, but other emotions like surprise, excitement and ambition didn’t come across. It also seemed that Metler tended to think about what was coming next instead of acting in the moment. For example, when she ended a scene flatly with what what could have been a juicy line about her desire to be the first female CEO: “I want it so bad I can taste it.” Luke S. Johnson as the love interest displayed a good and strong voice, particularly in the chorus numbers. And Carrie Johnson did an admirable job with the trickier, tamer supporting role of Judy.
The night was bookended by video of Dolly Parton’s floating head as a quasi-narrator. It was weird yet tolerable at first, but in the final scene it sucked the energy out of what the live actors were doing. While Parton is a gem, personally decreeing that the show is about her narrows its scope and appeal and shortens the shelf life of what could be a broader message. Narration by the Doralee character could be a better option.
On the technical side, the production had the most smooth and efficient scene changes I’ve seen in a community show. Stage manager Michele Brown and props/backstage manager Marie Nutget did a flawless job. I don’t know how they moved the dozens of desks around in the blink of an eye. One part of the production that needs attention, though, is the lights. Green’s sleazy, funkified number (pelvis a-thrusting, I assure you) late in the show desperately needed flashing lights. Just some colored lights going on and off would help, let alone a disco ball and backup singers.
The choreography (Corina Johnson) was very good at times, particularly in the smaller numbers like “One of the Boys.” In the larger numbers, it was a bit of dancer soup. The Empress has an unusual stage layout which seems like a challenge for blocking and choreograph.
But in general, the lyrics and book are strong. The style is very much Dolly, although more power ballad than country. Her roots do come through in some slide guitar instrumentation and “Backwoods Barbie” (which was later used as the title of a Parton album with a great Fine Young Cannibals cover). The theme may be women’s lib, but for better or for worse, this show is all about Dolly. If you choose to go, be aware that if this production was a movie, it would probably be rated on the heavier side of a PG-13 for ample profanity and strong sexual dialogue and situations.