9 to 5: The Musical – Theatre Review

Initially released back in 1980, 9 to 5 is a comedy film starring Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and the Dolly Parton. Cut forward almost 30 years later a musical of the same name opens on Broadway. With all original music by Dolly Parton and a book written by the film’s original screenwriter Patricia Resnick, 9 to 5 has been taking the world by storm!

It felt like I had been waiting for this production to come to Australia forever! And after powering through several Covid delays, 9 to 5 eventually opened in Sydney in February of 2022. Finally, it was my chance to pour a cup of ambition and head to a packed State Theatre at the Arts Centre for the Melbourne premiere of this long-awaited musical.

Aside from knowing about the production and hearing about how amazing it was, I actually knew very little about the story, let alone who I was going to see on stage. It was not until I sat down the night before to watch the original film, that I knew this was right up my alley. The powerful underlying story and crazy sense of humour had me both captivated and falling off the couch with laughter.

For those that do not know, the film follows the story of three women struggling to get ahead and stay afloat in a male dominated workforce. Not only are their incredible professional abilities overlooked due to their sex, but they also face constant harassment by their male peers and superiors. Including one overly chauvinistic entitled asshole of a boss. The three women each face a dramatic turning point that sets them on a path to bring down the patriarchal office environment and stick it to their boss in the process.

Upon entering the theatre, I got my first look at the incredibly talented cast, and I was even more excited for what I was about to witness. The legendary Marina Prior as Violet Newstead, the 12 year long serving secretary that has been overlooked for promotions more than she can count. Erin Clare as Dolly Parton’s character, Doralee Rhodes; the boss’s beautiful busty blonde personal secretary. Casey Donavan as the innocent housewife turn first-time office employee, Judy Bernly. Eddie Perfect as the aforementioned chauvinistic boss, Franklin Hart Jnr. And last, but certainly by no means least, the incredible Caroline O’Connor as the nosy, memo loving, office snitch, Roz Keith. If that cast was not enough, there is a fully stacked ensemble cast of talented performers that really bring the otherwise mundane office setting to life.

Now, if you have seen the film then you know exactly what you are in for and I must say, I am glad I did my research beforehand. I am not sure I would have felt the same way about the musical if I had not seen the film. For the most part, the storyline and pivotal plot points are true to the original. After all, they are both written by the same incredible writer. However, some creative liberties that have been taken to bring the message into the 21st Century, and wow, what a message it is!

We all know that ‘back in the day’ women were treated more like animals that needed to cook, clean, and raise kids. None of this corporate environment that is seemingly reserved for the men. And even though, this musical has taken place 42 years since the original film was released, the messaging still rings true. If anything, it is stronger now more than ever. To think that almost half a century later, women are still fighting for equal rights in the workplace and in society as a hole. The gender pay gap has not improved and in certain circumstances, it has even gotten worse. I honestly cannot understand why this shit still exists, but I am thankful that a production such as 9 to 5 is bringing this message into the limelight through some incredibly talented female performers.

There is no ‘leading lady’ in 9 to 5. Every single woman in this show shines as bright and powerful as the one they are standing next to. Early in the first act, Prior, Clare and Donavan perform a beautifully uplifting and self-reassuring number about making it on their own titled ‘I Just Might’. With three incredible vocals on stage, I was completely blown away by how well their voices matched both in harmony and power. In the second act, Marina Prior takes complete control of the stage with the number ‘One of the Boys’ as Violet dreams of becoming a strong female CEO.

Erin Clare is is super impressive as the blonde, outspoken, feisty and courageous Doralee Rhodes and very moment she is on stage was a delight. With a lot of her lines almost word for word from Dolly Parton‘s character in the movie, Clare pulls them off effortless and brilliantly, making the character truly her own.

Casey Donovan’s emotionally raw rendition of ‘Get Out and Stay Out’ was a clear stand out for me. Donovan perfectly portrayed the emotional rollercoaster of self-discovery and confidence that Judy Bernly has achieved throughout the story. From a timid and nervous girl to the strong independent woman that is taking back her life. This performance was so powerful and moving that it even received a semi-standing ovation as Donavan’s mutant lungs masterfully belted out the final note.

Then of course, you have the horrible male character that has brought all of these women together to rise up against him. Eddie Perfect as Franklin Hart Jnr is simply put, perfect. His experience in satirical humour and ability to not take himself too seriously sees Perfect slot into this role with ease. His character is corporate sexist pig personified. Not to forget the deep timber in his vocals that solidifies his characters persona. I have only ever seen Eddie Perfect on stage once before in Shane Warne the Musical and I was extremely delighted when I saw his name on the casting sheet. I really hope I get to see him on stage more in the future.

Now, Caroline O’Connor is usually front and centre in each production I have seen her in and even though she plays the part of a character that has less parts, O’Connor leaves nothing behind and throws everything into her performance as Roz Keith. Let’s be honest though, Caroline O’Connor could play the second tree as part of a set and still completely steal the show, 9 to 5 is no exception. O’Connor has this uncanny ability to command every scene she is in and her performance of ‘Heart to Hart’ was hilariously perfect and completely unexpected. O’Connor was having the time of her life up there and I was living watching it. Thank you, Caroline, for always making me smile each time I see you perform.

9 to 5 would not be the same without the original songwriter and film star playing some role in the production. Well, you can rest easy because Dolly Parton herself appears, via screen, as the narrator to the story. Her appearance added a little bit of extra weight to the already strong story, and I really appreciated the idea to include her into the production.

I have rattled on about the amazing performances, but I could not round this out without taking note of the incredible set design, lighting, and costuming. The stage is framed by arches of personal computers that got smaller in size as they reached the rear of the stage. This created a fantastic field of forced perspective making the space seem bigger than it was. It also cleverly drew your gaze towards the back of the stage to take note of every single part of the entire set.

The dull, monotonal workstations perfectly represented the mundane office working environment. But as the story progresses and the women begin to take over, these grey desks of despair become bright and colourful representations of productivity and work life balance. Even the lighting reflected the change in mood of the office environment from boring whites to a gleeful rainbow spectrum.

The costuming goes from the women being dressed to be easy on the eye of their male colleagues to fully covered cleavage and power pant suits. There is not a single thing I could fault about the whole production. Usually there is one thing that gets under my skin, but not this one. I might even say it is perfect.

If you have not worked it out by now, 9 to 5 is not only fabulously hilarious, but also contains an extremely important and powerful message that sadly needs retelling time and time again. Women deserve to be treated as equals in the workplace. Sex should not determine the level of skill, ability, and it is about damn time that women of the world that do the same job as men, with the same level of skill, receive the same level of financial recognition.

The gender pay gap is not changing and something needs to be done about it. 9 to 5 may not be able to change the world overnight, but I am damn well sure it will impact enough people to spark conversation about this battle that women are still fighting for. Equality.

I hope that most, if not all, attendees of tonight’s performance left the theatre thinking about what they witnessed and possibly what they can do to support and respect women in the workplace and in society more than they already do.

9 to 5 is fun, fierce, feisty, female, and fantastic. I am so thankful I got to experience 9 to 5 and if you are yet to book yourselves in to see this incredibly powerful production, you damn well should!

Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 is running performances at The State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne, until the 16th of September. The production then heads over to Adelaide’s Festival Theatre from the 9th of October until the 21st. Head to https://9to5themusical.com.au for more information and tickets.

Photography by David Hooley.

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