9 to 5 was a hit film for Jane Fonda’s production company when it debuted in 1980. While audiences cheered for the tale of three women who overcame sexism in the workplace, critical reception was mixed. Roger Ebert, for example called 9 to 5 “good hearted” and “simple minded,” and claimed it would be remembered primarily for being the film acting debut of Dolly Parton.
The film had its share of sexism associated with its production as well. Patricia Resnick, author of the original draft of the screenplay, had her work taken over by director Colin Higgins, who proceeded to cut her out of further creative input.
Ms. Resnick got her revenge, though. She partnered with Ms. Parton to produce a musical version of 9 to 5, which had a modest Broadway run in 2009 and came away empty from the Tony™ Awards competition that year.
Now, San Diego Musical Theatre is presenting its version of 9 to 5, through February 26 at the Spreckels Theatre. The show is still both “good hearted” and “simple minded,” and while it’s well produced it’s also not likely to generate a lot of excitement.
Ms. Resnick’s book follows the outline of the film, and she doesn’t stray to any great degree from that story line. There are three women who feel the brunt of the sexist behavior of the boss (David S. Humphrey): Violet Newstead (Joy Yandell), the long-serving office manager who has been passed over for promotion by men she trained, Judy Bernly (Allison Spratt Pearce), who has been forced back to office work by her husband leaving to marry a “trophy wife,” and Daralee Rhodes (Karyn Overstreet), a buxom woman from the country who serves as secretary to the boss. After the three realize that they can’t take any more of the boss’s over-the-top harassment, they team up to kidnap him and remake the company as a place that is far more friendly to the people who work there, both women and men.
Plays and musicals set in workplaces are often written as satirical comedies, acknowledging in the process not only the tyranny of bosses but the romantic machinations (both wanted and unwanted) among fellow employees. While some take the tack of introducing something outrageous to make the point (think The Producers’ Max Bialystock seducing little old ladies to fund his shows, or Kinky Boots’ use of a drag queen to save a dying shoe manufacturing business), others (think She Loves Me) make the point of boss and co-worker exploitation more gently. 9 to 5 hammers home both the exploitation and the revenge, and while workplace exploitation always should provoke concern, the hammering gets old fast.
I don’t think that Dolly Parton is capable of writing a terrible song, but while her songs for 9 to 5 managed to do what good theatre songs do (provide an emotional spotlight for leading characters, advance the plot), they’re just not particularly distinguished. The two best ones are the title song, which was written for the film and which appears at the top of the show in its most inventive and sexiest sequence (it’s hard when a musical’s arc peaks in its first five minutes or so), and “Backwoods Barbie,” which appeared on one of Ms. Parton’s studio albums.
The cast does its best to sell the material though, and Ms. Yandell, Ms. Pearce and Ms. Overstreet all sing well and take full advantage of their chances to shine individually. Candi Milo, as Roz, the boss’s personal assistant, also displays considerable vocal talent. And, Mr. Humphrey shows enough vulnerability as the boss that the traditional “villain’s boo” that audiences good-naturedly give at the curtain call was muted at the performance I saw.
Nobody’s going to whoop it up at the musical version of 9 to 5, but there’s sure to be appreciation for the talent on display in the production.
[box]Performs Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm, through February 26 at the Spreckels Theatre in downtown San Diego. Parking is available in a garage underneath the theatre, as well as at surrounding garages, and pay lots. Limited street parking is available. This review was based on the Sunday, February 12, matinee performance.