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Review: 9 TO 5 THE MUSICAL at The Festival Theatre, Adelaide

Review By Lisa Lanzi

Holy shoulder-pads Batman! I wanted to LOVE this musical and was totally ready to immerse myself in some escapist 80’s screen-to-stage nostalgia. I also have the utmost respect and admiration for Dolly Parton (who wrote the music and lyrics) and would definitely include her in my ‘dream dinner party guest list’. The cast are generally all excellent and there are a number of moments that shine brightly… but somehow it just doesn’t hold together for me.

First off the block is a joyful rendition of Parton’s quintessential song that gives the musical its title with recorded digital cameos from Dolly for some charm, a little story backgrounding, and character establishment. With lines like “too old to chase and too young to fire” as a descriptor we swiftly plummet through time to misogynistic 80s corporate ‘culture’. The sexism (and horrific jokes) only worsen as the show unfolds.

I want to highlight the talents of the sparkling supporting ensemble who threw themselves into the energetic, fun Lisa Stevens’ choreography, lighting up the stage and magnifying the energy whenever they appeared, even during scene changes and endless furniture shifting. These triple threat performers are extraordinary and undoubtedly add an extra level of vitality to the well-paced production. In addition to their dancing and singing, a number of the chorus had feature roles where every performance hit exactly the characterization, humour or charm as required.

Some of those brightest moments I mentioned above involve the lead female performers. Casey Donovan is a revelation as Judy where her nuanced balance of ‘timid’ utterances, meek characterization, and comedic timing was perfect. It is not a role that one would expect Donovan to take on but she owns it, not least in the pleasing arc of the character and the (literally) show-stopping second act number “Get Out and Stay Out” where her voice soars into the stratosphere and her trademark belt is unleashed as Judy grows into her truth.

Erin Clare is an accomplished all-rounder and here portrays Doralee with utter conviction and grace. Her crystal clear, perfectly accented spoken and sung vocals are flawless as is her stage presence and spell. I cannot wait to see what this performer does next. Ever commanding Marina Prior delivers an elegant, funny and intelligent character in Violet and her own Monroe-esque number “One of the Boys” with excellent backing from the male chorus. Sadly, Prior’s singing voice is not always quite on par and early in the first act seemed worryingly thin and unreliable.

While the developing friendship and feminist-allied realisation of power between Violet, Doralee and Judy is all beautifully realised and believable, the sexual-politico inconsistencies that litter the show rankle somewhat - and yes, I admit that I am inserting my 2022 sensibilities into the mix. The lustful Roz is deliciously realised by Caroline O’Connor, a brilliant performer who never disappoints. Her performance is exceptional but the degrading choreography and characterisation used to portray the unrequited love of a woman considered undesirable is uncomfortable to say the least. Again, my sensibilities are showing - others in the audience roared with laughter.

9 to 5 is adapted for stage by the film’s original screenwriter Patricia Resnick yet the story that inspired Parton’s song is based on a true scenario: a movement that started with 9to5, a group of Boston secretaries in the early 1970s. Their goals were to secure better pay, more advancement opportunities, and an end to sexual harassment. In 2022 when many women still don’t have equitable access to job flexibility, affordable health care and childcare, or equal pay, the narrative on stage seems unbalanced. In 9 to 5 we are witness to a few women who rightly protest the corporate zeitgeist but their requests and demands for change are continuously stomped to the floor; too often accompanied by innuendo, not-so-subtle sexual jibes, and other unsavoury actions.

Eddie Perfect exudes a sniggering ‘aren’t I just the nastiest’ attitude in his role as the supremely chauvinist, corrupt boss and it is easy to delight in his descent to ruin. The character is either less well written than others, or Perfect has decided (been directed?) to deliver the role in a flippant, ironic manner that leans too much toward caricature and lewdness.

Filmed Dolly cameos return throughout and during the finale she cheerily exhorts us to spread the word if we enjoyed the show, or, in genteel passive-aggressive Southern, to ‘just keep our mouths shut’ if we didn’t. While Dolly’s passion for this project is undeniable, her digital appearances seem a tad commercial. Another very annoying concern with this production was the sound balance. There were numerous times when the admittedly excellent accompaniment overpowered the singers, both during solo and group numbers.

However, don’t let any of my issues stop you from seeing 9 to 5 The Musical - a large percentage of the audience were whooping and cheering and on their feet applauding the curtain calls. The design is clever and the look of the production is fun and glossy with appropriate 80s overtones, but morphs toward visual clutter as the women ‘take over’ and a neon colour palette makes an appearance; I couldn’t find the credits for design etc on the website. The music is all easy to enjoy and the performers are so very watchable.

If you love Dolly, enjoy the nostalgia of the 80s, are a fan of the film, or want to see some kickass stagecraft - 9 to 5 is for you.

Image Credit: David Hooley


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