Dolly Parton’s joyous smash hit musical 9 To 5 first premiered in Los Angeles in September 2008 before making its Broadway debut in 2009. It later opened in the US (2010), UK (2012 and 2019) and now, it’s Melbourne’s turn – now playing at the State Theatre, Art Centre.
The musical is based on the 1980 comedy film of the same name, which is the perfect source material for this kind of show. Although it has over-the-top wacky hijinks like many films of that decade, its themes and relatability as well as smart casting is where the musical excels.
With music and lyrics by Dolly Parton, that’s not where the partnership ends. Parton not only gives her name, but is integrated into the story, taking on the role of narrator at the beginning and end of the musical, as well as joining the chorus for the musical’s title song. Appearing on-stage on the prop 9 to 5 clockface, Parton even throws in some Melbourne specific annotates for extra laughs.
Still set in the 1980s, the story (adapted for the stage by original screenwriter Patricia Resnick) remains the same: three female employees of a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot find a way to turn the tables on him. The themes are still very relevant today – equal pay, job flexibility, sexism in the office, office gossip, free health care and free day care.
Stage veteran, Marina Prior’s comic timing and sharp instincts command the stage. You immediately understand where she is in her life. She especially shines during One Of The Boys and Let Love Grow alongside Ethan Jones (playing potential love interest Joe). If I was to have one complaint, and it’s a small one, often Prior’s voice is better than the source material allows.
Eddie Perfect lives up to his namesake, perfectly capturing the often lecherous, Franklin Hart, Jr. Even while sexually objectifying his staff, Perfect manages to equally charm and disgust the audience in a confusing, yet satisfying, combination. Just try not to laugh when he later dons a bejewelled codpiece that would even make Tom Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx blush.
Erin Clare and Casey Donovan are reunited following 2016’s We Will Rock You. Clare is in top form, taking the sass and charisma of Parton from the film while making the role her own. Donovan, too, is brilliant. Watching her go from a meek and timid character to finding her grow in confidence is the most successful and thoughtful arc of the show. Her powerhouse vocals were deserving of the spontaneous standing ovation she received during Get Out And Stay Out.
Mention must be given too to Caroline O’Connor as Roz who pines over Hart Jr. During her solo number, she dons some saucy lingerie and well, best not to spoil what comes next, but she manages to wring every possible laugh from her unexpected yet sensational show-stealing role.
Completing the cast are Lily Baulderstone, Zoe Coppinger, Mia Dabkowski-Chandler, Ben Gillespie, Emma Hawthorne, James Haxby, Emma Johns, Jay Johns, Sarah Krndija, Antonia Marr, Tom New, Jake O’Brien, Matthew Prime, Jackson Reedman, Jordan Tomljenovic and Jessica Vellucci.
All three of the female leads represent different variations of strong, independent women. Recently widowed, Violet (Prior) believes she needs to give up love and happiness to be taken seriously in a man’s corporate world. Judy (Donovan) finds herself entering the workforce for the first time following the separation from her husband (Joshua Mulheran) to a younger woman. While Doralee (Clare) proves you can still be your own woman with a loving and supportive husband by your side.
While the mundane nature of a routine office job is well represented, there are subtle additions of colour as the women begin running the office, not only in the décor but in the lighting (by lighting designer, Howard Hudson). Although the staging is minimal it never feels bare, layers are built with dimensional backdrops, which adds so much, even if the audience isn’t consciously aware of it. Lisa Stevens’ clever choreography also uses the dancers to create layers as set pieces are moved around, while Tom Rogers‘ costume design gives nods to the 80s while giving the characters personal expression.
For a musical based on the catalogue of Parton, a true pioneer of country music, its songs are not overly country. Apart from Doralee’s Backwoods Barbie – the autobiographical track from Parton’s 2008 album of the same name – the songs are relatively theatrical, catchy, and hard not to like. The overly western romp, Cowgirl’s Revenge, has been removed from this production, as has the songs The Dance Of Death, Potion Notion and Joy To The Girls in favour of Hey Boss.
As jukebox musicals go, 9 To 5 has one of the best integration of songs, so much so, that if you were to tell me that Parton wrote these songs with the forethought of creating a musical, I’d believe you. It’s not often a jukebox musical works as well as it does here, but the lyrics make complete sense to the character and work on a higher level than other musical offerings in Melbourne currently.
In closing, 9 to 5: the musical is colourful, funny and has an important message without hitting you over the head with it. It’s sexual without being crude. It’s over-the-top while remaining grounded in reality. It’s relatable too to anyone who has felt stuck in thankless job. It’s genuinely upbeat and leaves you with a smile. And, above all else, it has heart which is lacking in many other musicals. Jeff Calhoun has directed an enjoyable evening of live theatre for any regular musical theatre goer or Parton fan alike.
Catch 9 To 5 in Melbourne until September 18, before it heads to Adelaide’s Festival Theatre from October 8. Tickets are available here: 9to5themusical.com.au