The problems that the secretaries of Consolidated Industries faced in “9 to 5,” that 1980 blockbuster comedy now turned stage musical, are depressingly present in the workplace today. There is still sexual harassment at the office. There is still a gender gap in pay. Women are still pitted against one another by male superiors, in an effort to ensure everyone loses allies and advantage. The difference between 1980 and now is one of amplification, making “9 to 5 The Musical” a smart production choice in our #MeToo era. The past several months have shown that women, across many professional spheres, are no longer willing to stay silent about the injustices they face, and that lifting their voices in unison is the only way to change society. Firebrand Theatre’s “9 to 5” may not entirely rise above its clunky book, but when its women join together in song, there is no question that this feminist, women-driven theatre company empowers its artists and emulates a better world for its the audience.
The embattled women at the center of this story are Doralee (Sharriese Hamilton), Judy (Sara Reinecke), and Violet (Anne Sheridan Smith). Doralee spends her days receiving innuendo-fueled cold shoulders from her fellow assistants, while also fending off unwanted sexual advances from the company’s cartoon chauvinist of a president, Franklin J. Hart (Scott Danielson). Violet is due for a promotion from Hart, but loses out to an unqualified man simply because of her gender. Judy has just entered the secretarial pool, since her husband has abandoned her, and she must now bring home her own bacon; Hart insults and demoralizes her on her first day. His executive secretary Roz (Veronica Garza) pines after her employer, though he doesn’t seem to realize she exists, outside of her usefulness as an office spy. Doralee, Judy, and Violet are bound to retaliate, and when the opportunity presents itself, let’s just say that hogtying the boss is only the first step in their impulsive plan.
Dolly Parton provides the score and lyrics for the eighties-infused country soundtrack here. The title song is also a hit from the movie, so the audience is ready to move with the music from the opening moments of the show. But Patricia Resnick’s book, based on her own screenplay, cannot match Parton’s musical energy, or the stage’s demand for storytelling economy. Scenes are often overstuffed, with bits of information about each woman’s trials scattered so illogically throughout the show that it is hard to remember their motivations from moment to moment. The excessive inclusion of terrible winks at eighties culture, or what’s to come in the future, do not help move the show along, and only a reference to the Clapper is barely tolerable. The movie’s absurd dark streak is nowhere to be found in the dramatic work, and this is a real problem when we are meant to celebrate the ladies’ revenge caper. Parton’s music lifts the proceedings, but this is not a sung-through show, and her effervescence cannot save a confusing, overcooked mess.
Luckily, Harmony France’s direction smartly infuses music with heart in a way that encourages forgiveness for the story’s structural problems. When our heroines first sing about their troubles separately, and then harmonize about their problems together, they win our undying loyalty; the voices are all excellent. France never makes her actors the butt of a joke, outside of Danielson, whose character is written as a clown, and basically disappears in the second half. She finds the insight in each of Parton’s ballads and group numbers, and draws out individualized emotional expressions that elevate what could seem corny, played out, or too large for life. The ensemble crackles with energy whenever they take the stage, executing Kasey Alfonso’s tight choreography with gusto, while making well-informed and bold acting choices with each lyric. It is no surprise that “Lizzie” was such a smash for Firebrand. Under France’s artistic leadership, the company is developing a reputation for no holds barred, intense theatrical performance, and that suits the office comedy “9 to 5” in ways I never could have foreseen.
Andra Velis Simon as music director deserves a separate shoutout for her deft work with the cast and musicians. The orchestrations for this “9 to 5” more fully integrate Parton’s country sound than the original Broadway production, incorporating the washboard, the spoons, the fiddle, the bass, and acoustic guitar riffs. It lends the score a more unique flavor and point of view, and watching the ensemble switch in and out of playing with the live band, while sporting Virgina Varland’s appropriately eighties fashion, is a real treat.
To a woman, Hamilton, Reinecke, and Sheridan Smith are wonderful companions for the evening, but I must say the surprise of the show is Garza as Roz. She takes what could be a pathetic, stereotypically desperate female, and turns her into a stick of dynamite about to explode with confidence in her own weird sexuality. Her solo brought the house down multiple times at the performance I watched, and her follow-up moment featuring a terribly played accordion and equally questionable French was a highlight of the second act. She is a true show-stealer, with France’s direction and Alfonso’s choreography highlighting specifically odd comedic flourishes in her primal torch song. Perhaps it is strange that the most overlooked character at the office receives the highest praise for the night, but I think that fits right in with the female empowerment “9 to 5 The Musical” is celebrating, and the work that Firebrand Theatre is accomplishing in Chicago.
Show: “9 to 5 The Musical”
Company: Firebrand Theatre
Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave)
DIE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”
TEN WORD SUMMARY: They are women; hear them roar in unique musical arrangement.