Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 The Musical has arrived at QPAC’s Lyric Theatre, and it is a fast-paced and surprisingly risqué night out. Inspired by the hit 1980 film of the same name, starring Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda, 9 to 5 The Musical is a high-energy musical that attempts to modernise a retro story but doesn’t quite commit to either the eighties or the oughts.
With the book by Patricia Resnick, the movie’s original screenwriter, and the music and lyrics by Dolly Parton, 9 to 5 The Musical premiered in 2008 and opened on Broadway the following year. This production, directed by Jeff Calhoun, was initially scheduled to tour Australia in 2020 but was delayed due to the pandemic.
Long-suffering but dedicated employee Violet Newstead is holding out for a promotion. Judy Bernly, recently divorced, is entering the workforce for the first time. Bright and beautiful Doralee Rhodes has a supportive husband and dreams of becoming a country singer, but for now is working as a secretary. All three women are frustrated and furious with their boss, the demanding and difficult Franklin Hart Jr. Together, Violet, Judy, and Doralee form an unlikely friendship that escalates quickly into accidentally poisoning and then kidnapping the boss. With Hart incapacitated, Violet, Judy, and Doralee take the opportunity to make some meaningful changes to the office.
9 to 5 The Musical maintained all of the core elements of the film’s plot but dialled up the sexual innuendo and the lead characters’ corporate ambitions, particularly Violet’s. Dolly herself provides the character introductions and epilogues via a projection, and these have been personalised particularly for Brisbane (and presumably for all cities on the tour).
The structure of the story is reliant on well-worn cliches and caricatures: the hard-working career woman, the naïve new recruit, the busty secretary, and the demanding boss. Attempts to modernise the plot or soften the sexism fell somewhat flat, as this only emphasised the dated ideals underpinning the storyline. This was not helped by the addition of cheap laughs, with a bit of nudity and plenty of phallic jokes. In fact, the character of Hart in the musical was more of an outright misogynist than in the film. While this was evidently meant to cement his detestable character, and Perfect played it well, these moments were largely uncomfortable (to the extent that one of the jokes was booed by some audience members).
Marina Prior was wonderfully dry-witted and vocally strong as Violet, and Erin Clare embodied Dolly’s country charm as Doralee. As in the film, Doralee was initially ostracised because the other women in the office assumed she was sleeping with the boss; however, the musical provided less context for this, which made Doralee’s performance of Backwoods Barbie less impactful. Casey Donovan was the standout vocalist, although her unnaturally high-pitched speaking voice was a disconcerting choice, and a number of people in the audience jumped to their feet after her belting rendition of Get Out and Stay Out. Eddie Perfect gave a great performance as insufferable misogynist Franklin Hart Jnr and his vocals were impressive, particularly given that he was frequently performing while suspended mid-air. Caroline O’Connor was brilliant as Hart’s loyal lackey and office busybody Roz Keith, who in the musical was also expanded upon to have an intense, unrequited love for her boss. The tango dream sequence between Roz and a fantasy version of Hart was memorable but, again, reasonably raunchy.
The cast’s American accents remained fairly consistent, although they sometimes seemed to hamper the vocal performances. The ensemble cast were outstanding, and their performance of Lisa Stevens’ choreography was sharp and snappy, making excellent use of levels with the office furniture.
Panning projections were used effectively to change scenes, and scene transitions were very smooth even with a large number of set pieces. The set included chunky retro computer monitors, and 80s references such as Atari were used as cultural touchstones. However, more modern political and tongue-in-cheek references grated against the less modern ideals around women and work, among other things, being played out onstage.
The costuming incorporated plenty of block colours and swirling skirts, although the costume changes occasionally muddied the timeline as one character changed costume while others did not. Given the 80s setting, I think I was also expecting bigger hair, bigger shoulder pads, and more distinctive silhouettes from that era. In many ways, 9 to 5 The Musical felt more chrome-and-glass than polyester-and-wood-panelling, and this made the differences even more stark when phrases and scenes were lifted directly from the film.
Significant suggestive material has been added to the story with minimal payoff, but 9 to 5 The Musical was a high energy production delivered by a talented and cohesive cast.