By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Joy to the girls. The vintage revenge fantasy now charging around the office on the Citadel’s Maclab stage — propelled by Dolly Parton songs and a perennial point about exploitation of women in the work place — doesn’t mess around with subtlety.
Nope. In 9 to 5 the musical three women office workers have had it up to here with their tyrannical, leering lying lech of a boss who’s never seen a skirt he didn’t want to look up and a dress he didn’t want to look down. They band together to take him down by trussing him up. And, hell’s bells, you go girl, they actually do.
A 2008 stage re-creation of the 1980 movie lodged in your memory (Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Parton herself), 9 to 5 is pretty clunky and obvious as musicals go, too clunky to be slick. Which is probably all to the good, as the big go-for-the-gusto cheeriness of Rachel Peake’s production demonstrates.
It’s unapologetically unencumbered by taste, unafraid of the wink, the open-mouthed gasp, the exit wiggle of a plaid-clad male butt. And maybe that’s the smart way to do a cartoon comedy onstage — by cartooning it. A cartoon of a cartoon is a viable choice at least: half-measures would probably just be queasy (and take longer).
A top-drawer cast of likeable singer-actors don’t just buy in, they commit gamely to individualizing the typing pool, and to outsized cartoon performances (go big or go work at home, right?). The production lets them have their musical moments (backed up by Janie Flower’s expert all-female musical forces). And they all know how to sell a song, a considerable plus even if that sell sometimes seems a little hard given the flimsiness of the material.
You could argue that’s the point of revenge fantasies anyhow: since life is short, who could be bothered to have a subtle, nuanced revenge fantasy? And besides, the image of Dolly Parton, who seems on the public stage to be a fusion of business savvy and appealingly straight-forward self-assessment — as in Parton’s famous quip that “it costs a lot of money to look this cheap” — hovers over the proceedings.
How much fun you’ll have at 9 to 5, through more than two hours, depends to some extent on your enjoyment of mouldy sight gags, panto-style throw-away groaners and double-entendres, and a plot line where the taking down and stringing up of the evil boss is an actual stage demo. This is a show, pretty much subtext-free, that is presumptuous enough to make a punchline out of “I swear, if you say another word about me, I’ll get that gun of mine and I’ll change you from a rooster and a hen in one shot!” — and, as delivered by the backwoods bombshell Doralee (the show’s Dolly Parton figure) fully expects audience laughter. And gets it, I’m here to report back from opening night.
Playwright Patricia Resnick (who also wrote the screenplay) sets 9 to 5 in 1979. But, hey, anyone who thinks that equal pay for equal work, job-sharing, flexible hours, in-house daycare are by now universal givens in the work world must live off a trust fund. Besides, the ‘70s visuals of Peake’s production make vintage genuinely amusing. Dana Osborne’s set is a kind of set is a kind of era jukebox cum bandshell, two-level as befits an oeuvre about office hierarchy. The secretarial pool is at floor level, natch, and in a jokey touch they even have to sit-walk their own desks on and offstage.
Osborn’s costumes are a riot of mis-matched plaids, icky sweater vests, the shacking up of harvest gold and maroon with pukey shades of green. Hip to the plot, the colours of the office step up to a brighter palette in Act II once Franklin Hart, the CEO of Consolidated, has had his sexist privileges, er, suspended. And they always involve a blast of pink top to toe when it comes to Doralee, as you will have anticipated.
To take your mind off the history of polyester for a sec, after the caffeinated 9 to 5 opening sequence the show gathers together a series of showbiz tropes. Some are fantasy reversals of classic musical theatre production numbers like the Western, the film noir, the fairy tale, reinvented with men in the bum-wiggling ensemble and women kicking those bums. It’s occasioned by the time-honoured (lame) device of women getting stoned together to bond. It’s tit for tat — hmm, pretty much literally, with the tat being plaid pants on male derrières.
As the aggrieved office manager and single-mother Violet, who’s been overlooked for promotion countless times due to her competence, Sharon Crandall is excellent. It’s not exactly Cole Porter, but she does get to rhyme ‘high-class’ and ‘kiss ass’. And equally fine are performances from her co-conspirators. As the sassy blonde firecracker Doralee, Julia McLellan captures the bright Dolly cadences in speech and song (Backwoods Barbie is hers to claim). And as the office newcomer with self-esteem issues, Patricia Zentilli smartly charts the confidence-building arc that starts at zero and leads to Get Out And Stay Out, addressed to her smarmy ex-husband. It’s an anthem to reclaiming a life wherein she can be perfectly happy, as she notes, “without Dick.” Zentilli really nails it.
As the irredeemably despicable misogynist boss, Juan Chioran steps vigorously up to villainous awfulness, no holds barred. He’s the setup and he doesn’t shirk his histrionic duty, whether in pratfalls or torchy numbers (choreography: Julie Tomaino).
The smaller roles, not all of which are well-written, are well occupied nonetheless. The show’s repository of sincerity and understatement is Joe (Andrew MacDonald-Smith, the sweet junior accountant who delivers a Parton ballad about taking a chance on love, to plead his case with Violet.
The funniest performance of the evening belongs to Kristin Johnston as Mr. Hart’s sour-faced gorgon of an assistant who’s sweet on the boss. I laughed out loud in the scene she re-invents for comic purposes, the classic trope of the drab bun-headed scowler who takes off her glasses, lets down her hair, leaps onto the boss’s desk and, voilà, an improbable wild-eyed siren is born.
It’s surprising in a way that the rest of the evening just isn’t. But then, sometimes revenge is its own showbiz sustenance: you can play with it, you can dress it up and accessorize, you can sing about it (if you have a cast with chops). You can boo the villain, cheer the heroines, savour the taste of a worthy message. It’s not a great musical by any means. But sometimes it’s enough.
9 to 5
Written by: Patricia Resnick (book) and Dolly Parton (music and lyrics)
Starring: Julia McLellan, Sharon Crandall, Patricia Zentilli, Kristin Johnston, Juan Chioran, Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Stephanie Wolfe, Jeremy Carver-James
Running: through May 29
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com