Ladies Take Charge in Nostalgic 9 TO 5 Musical
Capitol Theatre, Sydney, Thursday February 24
Reviewed by Heather Clements
More than two years since it was announced, Dolly Parton’s feel-good-fun musical 9 TO 5 has finally opened to eager audiences in Sydney following the COVID interruptions. The offical opening night performance at the iconic Capitol Theatre was abuzz with excitement to finally see this A-list cast in action.
As far as A-list casts go in Australia, they don’t get much better than this. The incomparable Marina Prior leads the company ladies as Violet; powerful Casey Donovan excels as awkward Judy; multi-talented Erin Clare totally captures the essence of Dolly Parton as Doralee; industry icon Caroline O’Connor is brilliantly comedic as the adoring Roz; and it is great to see Eddie Perfect back on the local stage as the horribly chauvinistic boss Franklin Hart Jr.
For those not familiar with the 1980 hit comedy movie 9 TO 5, this musical may seem strangely politically incorrect and they may miss the overall joke. Starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin the original movie launched Parton into the mainstream from her country music roots and was one of the first feminist-style movies that saw the three women overthrow (i.e. kidnap!) the company’s egotistical and sexist boss, run the company better by themselves and get what success they deserved. It also had Dolly Parton sing the mega-hit title song which is still considered one of the best original movie songs.
From the start, this was sure to be a fun show with the large 9 To 5 logo alight onstage as the audience entered. The opening number of ‘9 TO 5’ saw the ensemble set the fun eighties-themed tone and introduce the lead cast, setting the scene for the narrative at Consolidate Companies where the staff are at the mercy of their bigoted boss and women are to be productive, good looking, obedient and silent. Sensibly, the writers and producers have firmly placed this show in the early eighties with its characters, design and costuming as, even though the themes are still relevant today, the storyline is definitely of it’s era.
Adding something unique to the musical theatre format is the incorporation of personalised video from Dolly Parton herself into the show periodically. Although obviously pre-recorded, this video messaging from Dolly does add a bit of ‘Hollywood’ to the local production and enhances the narrative. It also sets up the show to be not only a celebration of feminine power but of the incredible songwriting skills of Dolly Parton. Parton has written the music and lyrics to every new song in this musical, which ultimately showcases her diversity and true genius as a musician. The fact that the main musical ‘hook’ from the theme song is filtered throughout many of the other songs just magically brings the whole show together. Dolly Parton’s support has had a bit of a resurgence of late due largely from Gen Z discovering her catalogue and longevity, and if you didn’t appreciate Dolly Parton before, 9 TO 5 The Musical will bring you around.
With such an accomplished lead cast it is difficult to objectively critique their performances. Naturally, they are all top-notch and a joy to experience. Marina Prior looks like she is having so much fun letting her hair down in this role as the widowed mum trying to make her mark at work. She lets loose and is great as the ‘mum’ of the girls at work, shining in her showcase number ‘One Of The Boys’.
Relative new-comer to musical theatre Erin Clare emulates Dolly Parton’s country vocal tones perfectly as Doralee Rhodes and acts sublimely as the sweet and loveable girl that everyone judges wrongly because of her unintended ‘sex’ appeal. It’s an old trope to be the sexually harassed secretary, but Clare carries the role well into a modern world and holds her own in the context of this story. When she sings her character song ‘Backwoods Barbie’ the audience really gets a sense of who she is.
It is so great to see theatre all-rounder Eddie Perfect back onstage in this show. He pulled off the difficult task of portraying the awfully sexist Franklin Hart Jr in the post #MeToo world quite convincingly as an exaggerated caricature that successfully poked fun at both himself and the corporate world in which he operates. As the brunt of the all the revenge and jokes in 9 TO 5, Perfect brings enormous humour to the role and leaves the audience crossing between reality and performance for a few moment when he dangles on stage at the end of Act I and interacts with the audience still seated. His American accent may have been exaggerated, but Eddie Perfect still hit all the right notes.
The role of Roz has been elevated in the musical production compared to the film, and the producers struck gold in securing the legendary Caroline O’Connor in the role of the sycophantic, love-lorn assistant to Hart. Always a joy to watch, O’Connor in this role gets to rock her comedic brilliance in a way that has not been seen recently. She is edgy, annoying, funny, sassy, sexy, awkward and hilarious. Roz’s character shouldn’t be noteworthy in the current climate because she idolises and enables her sexist boss. However, O’Conner manages to pull his role off convincingly despite it feeling counter-productive to the main storyline. Her vocals and movement are completely en pointe and she truly lifts the show to another level. Her signature performances of ‘Heart to Hart’ and ‘5 to 9’ are two of the musical’s highlights; especially with O’Connor’s physical slap-stick comedy. She’s a true gem and the audience is lucky to have seen her in this role.
In the sweet, naive role of newly divorced Judy is Casey Donovan. Judy is starting her new job (her first job) at Consolidated Companies and is taken under the wing of Violet. Donovan has performed in several musicals now, and it is clear this girl can act as well as sing. Judy is demure and quietly finding her place in a work environment after her husband left her. Donovan beautifully balances the nuances of her character between acceptance and defiance. It may be debatable, but in my opinion, Donovan stole the show in 9 TO 5 The Musical. Her character acting and interaction with the other cast was great, but when she sang her show stopper song ‘Get Out And Stay Out’ it brought the only standing ovation of the night. And rightly so. Donovan’s voice has that magical quality that can make your heart sing and dreams soar.
The ensemble dancers were tight and efficient; good supporting dancers bringing the story to life. In this kind of production, if I had noticed the dancers more than the lead characters, there would have been a problem.
Overall, 9 TO 5 is a delightful show that ticks all the boxes of good musical theatre. Even though it was inspired by terribly sexist stories from working women of the 1970s, it sadly still resonates today. The fact that young women in the audience were cheering at certain ‘power femme’ moments means there is still relevance in the old tropes of sexist men in power.
The beauty of 9 TO 5 is that it is completely self-aware of how outdated some of the storyline is but it cleverly pulls it off due to the amazing cast of women who play their characters so convincingly. In the end it is a fun show with great music and leading ladies with a message that female solidarity will triumph.
9 TO 5 may be slightly out of step with today’s social standards of equality and sexism, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and its messages are sadly still relevant.