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Review: 9 to 5 at the Arts Centre Melbourne

Review by Carly Fisher

You’d be hard pressed to find someone born pre-2000s who won’t know at least the chorus to Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5…to say it’s iconic would be an understatement! Though now I am sure that many people across a range of industries lust for a 9-5 work day, the sentiment remains and the song itself is hard not to love - it’s just so catchy!

But much like the idea of a simple 9-5 work day has changed with the times, so too has the relevance of this story. I am a big believer that work of all periods should be showcased and appreciated for what it represents of its time and so to that end, whilst the old-school misogyny that fills this show doesn’t sit well with my more modern sentiments, I am actually glad that we have an opportunity to see it! We should be reminded of what it was like, particularly those of us young enough to thankfully have had a different experience of women in the workplace. To fully appreciate how far we have come, and yet how far we still have to go, it is always important to look back…so for those reasons, I understand the rationale of bringing the show to the stage.

I will be honest and say that whilst I am a major theatre nerd, film…less so and so I have actually never seen the 1980s film by the same title on which the musical is based. I knew that the storyline may not be entirely up my alley prior to going into the theatre on Sunday but with an all star cast like this, who wouldn’t want to give the show a go!

And for the talent, absolutely, the show is worth seeing! Unfortunately as gorgeous of a venue as the State Theatre is at the Arts Centre Melbourne, the sound mix was incredibly off making the cast difficult to hear and competing constantly with the band. Everything sounded somewhat muted which was a shame because when you have the powerful belt of Casey Donovan at your disposal, you should absolutely blare it from the rooftops…what a talent! Hopefully whatever is going on with the sound can be rectified quickly, otherwise, my advice would be to sit as close to the stage as you can because by half way through the audience (albeit in excellent seats), you are already missing the power of the show due to a sheer lack of volume.

Aside from the excellent talent on stage (which I will come back to), the highlight of the show is undoubtedly the music and lyrics by Dolly Parton…which is good, because, let’s be honest, it is why most of us are there! The book (Patricia Resnick) is one of the weaker I have seen in musicals of late but again, the audience excuses most of it - though the random inclusion and poor treatment of the topic of alcoholism was harder to simply excuse away - because Dolly’s songs are right on the money with my personal highlight being ‘Backwoods Barbie’ sung to perfection by the incomparable Erin Clare.

And yes, if you are coming for Dolly, don’t worry, you will get your fix! Welcoming the audience and taking on the role of the narrator, pre-recorded videos from Dolly seem a very welcomed addition, based on the audience’s response!

Director Jeff Calhoun clearly utilises his background and skill in choreography to add an extra layer of vivaciousness, particularly to the Ensemble members’ tracks. The show is well paced and whilst I personally feel that more could have been done with a number of the scenic changes to keep that flow and rhythm alive, overall Calhoun’s work is clear and guides us as an audience well. I feel that the stereotypes of 80s energy were a little too leaned into in this show (where it works so beautifully in shows of a similar ilk like The Wedding Singer, here it read as over acting at times), but the leads were given well defined characters that they have clearly spent time continuing to develop.

Marina Prior usually takes the helm as Violet Newstead but on the night we saw the show, Zoe Coppinger was in for the role and she was superb. Dynamic, energetic and driven, Coppinger was an excellent Newstead (the only part that was not believable was the age difference between her and her beau but everything else…she was just perfect for).

Casey Donovan, as I mentioned, vocally can do no wrong! She takes on the role of Judy Bernly and whilst there is not a foot wrong in a single song, I wish that Calhoun had given her a bit more freedom to grow her character further and let her find Judy’s strength in more than just script, but in action. Her Minnie Mouse-esque voice didn’t do Donovan justice but props to her for her complete commitment to the character. Donovan is unquestionably one of our brightest Aussie talents and I hope we get to see her take to the musical theatre stage more and more. She is brilliant!

Erin Clare too is pure star quality. She takes on Doly’s character from the film (no easy feat when the audience is packed with Dolly fans!), Doralee Rhodes. Her riffs, her characterisation, her accent work…honestly, no flaws! I have seen Clare in a number of shows before this and every time her range continues to surprise me. Again, Australian musical theatre is stronger when leads like her take to the stage and I will go see any show she is in…even if I don’t think the story is for me!

The absolute stand out though is none other than Australia’s Musical Theatre queen herself, Caroline O’Conner. She is funny, she is poised, she is energetic, she is vocally in demand and she is absolutely fit! O’Conner’s Roz Keith is vivacious and she just continues to impress and surprise me more in every show I see her in. Though she takes on a smaller part in this production, she offers a perfect reminder of just how memorable a smaller role can be. O’Conner is the one everyone is talking about at interval and she is the one you go home remembering. She has the audience in the palm of her hands from start to end.

Eddie Perfect too has the audience, though I would argue that that is because of his star coming into the show…he has a big fan base and they are there for him! Comedically, he is strong, vocally, less so.

The Ensemble work exceptionally hard through this production with complex, high energy tracks for everyone. As a group, there is not a weak link amongst them and whilst the choreography is simple for most of the show, the execution is precise. Kudos to all!

Unfortunately the website for the show doesn’t offer credit to the design team but I felt that the lighting throughout was extremely well done with a perfect mix of specials and general states to keep the audience engaged but not too overwhelmed with the colours and patterns of the 80s. The bold coloured squares framing the show in Act 2 would be the only exception to this where overall, there was just too much distraction from the talent on stage, but otherwise, the designs across the board are strong. I was less enamored with the costume design but I do appreciate that the 80s were not the kindest as far as fashion is concerned and I thought that the commitment to the period was well explored and executed.

Producers John Frost and Suzanne Jones, alongside Dolly Parton, have done a lot to try and compensate for the story…a 5 star headline bill being a prime example of that. They certainly have made it a show to see because of who fills the stage…it’s what fills the stage that would make me reluctant to recommend the show too far and wide. A slightly strange mix of modern updates to what was a silly but at least temporally relevant story, have left the show a bit in limbo, and unfortunately, the audience along with it.

It’s not one I’d see again, but it is one I am definitely glad I saw.

Image Credit: David Hooley


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