Theatre Review: “9 to 5: the Musical” at Clowes

(Left to right: Diana DeGarmo, Dee Hoty, and Mamie Parris.  Photo by Joan Marcus.)

Last Wednesday I drove to Clowes Memorial Hall on the Butler University campus in Indianapolis to see Broadway Across America’s touring professional production of “9 to 5: the Musical.

I had such a good time that night that I bought the original cast recording on my way out, listened to it in my car as I drove everywhere for the next few days, and carved out time to go back and see the show again on Saturday afternoon.  I responded positively to this fun, romantic, subtly substantive show on several levels, and I would have gone back to see it a third time if I didn’t already have other commitments for the rest of the weekend.

Unfortunately, the last performance of this tour in Indianapolis was Sunday night, so you won’t be able to use my review to help you decide whether or not to go see it yourself, but I would still like to record and share some of my experience of it.

What the Show Is About (Warning: spoilers)

The 2009 Tony-nominated musical is based on the 1980 movie, “9 to 5,” which starred Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton.  It was a movie about three secretaries:  Violet – a strong, capable, single mother and office manager that has been repeatedly passed over for promotions, Judy – a newly divorced woman that has never worked outside the home before this, and Doralee – a busty blonde that is kind and smart but who suffers because of people’s assumptions about her based on the way she looks and sounds.

They kidnap their tyrannical male boss sort of by mistake but then work together to use the circumstances of his secret captivity to make changes that improve the morale and productivity of their workplace.  The friendship that develops between them helps each of them as well.

The movie was funny but it also pointed out unfair, sexist practices that were still going on in many American businesses at that time, practices that have now become illegal.  It helped to raise people’s consciousnesses about why those practices were not only morally wrong but also bad for business.

The musical has basically the same plot and it is still officially set in 1979, but it has several funny and profound acknowledgements that its audiences live in 2011.

We laugh, for example, at the idea of an answering machine being a newfangled invention.  The musical doesn’t just point out that the modern workplace is less overtly sexist, it is also points out that technology in the workplace has changed completely in 30 years, too.

I love that it also subtly acknowledges more of the complexity of feminism and hints that even our understanding of that has changed in 30 years.  For example, the movie showed Violet finally getting a big promotion, as if that were enough and all that “strong women” deserve, but in the musical she also gets to find love with a good man again.  I can’t remember exactly how the movie ended for Judy but I do remember it being sort of lame.  In the musical she is firmly and contentedly single and a writer of self-help books.   This is funny but there is no “poor thing” judgmental nonsense around it.  In both the movie and the musical, Doralee goes on to become a country-western singer, which was funny in the movie because she was played by Dolly Parton but which in the musical, while still funny, struck me as also acknowledging the fact that many people now change careers at least once in their lives, something that didn’t happen that often 30 years ago.

I love that the musical, with subtlety and humor – and oh, yes, excellent dancing and singing – points out that we, as a society and as individuals, have reinvented ourselves on many levels and yet the basics of relationships and community life are still in place and more important than ever.  Jobs may be 9 to 5 but life isn’t.  Compassion (not co-dependence), communication, courtesy and relationships – with others and with ourselves – will always be relevant.

And, maybe, a “life journey” for all of us.  I love that the musical doesn’t expect us to pretend that sexism has truly disappeared or that we have figured out once and for all how to live with each other.  (I laughed out loud at the irony when I went out to use the restroom at intermission and the male usher was joking about “the hostility of women in restroom lines.”)

It does show us that dysfunction is not limited to one sex or the other.  Yes, the male boss lusts after Doralee and calls it love instead of examining his own desires and fears around intimacy, but so does Roz, his assistant.  I mean, Roz lusts after Franklin Hart and calls it love instead of examining her own desires and fears around taking on a position of power.  Roz and Mr. Hart were fun characters in the movie, but their solo songs in the musical, while funny, also flesh them out as human beings.

I also love that the musical shows that people often resist even positive changes when they haven’t made them themselves.  The physical changes that Violet, Judy, and Doralee make at the office building (more cheerful décor, daycare, etc.) require a song about attitude adjustment, too, in order for them to improve productivity.

And even then, some people will never change.  If it had been up to me, I would have sent Roz on to Bolivia with Mr. Hart at the end as she requested, rather than keeping her resentful energy in my workplace just so I could make her fix the photocopier.  But I’m sure that Violet will figure out soon enough that being a successful CEO does not actually mean that you can do whatever you want.

Artistic Considerations

I hope my earnest deconstruction above does not make you think that the show itself is earnest or talkshow-y.  On the contrary, it is joyful and fun.  You can go and enjoy it (or well, you could if it were still playing in Indy) and not think deeply about it at all if you don’t want to.

The performers are all excellent, with big, beautiful singing voices.  I enjoy the original cast recording but I wish I also had a CD of this cast singing the songs.

I especially love the chemistry between Violet Newstead (Dee Hoty) and Joe (Gregg Goodbrod), the young accountant that wants to take her out, when they sing their “Let Love Grow” duet:

(Photo by Joan Marcus.)

However, at both viewings I also gasped with pleasure when each of the leads sang his or her character-defining number. 

For example, I grew up in the suburbs and I just wear whatever happens to be clean but I knew exactly what Doralee Rhodes (Diana DeGarmo) meant when she sang about being a “Backwards Barbie” that bases her idea of “glam” on fashion dolls and Fredericks catalogs but who means well and whose feelings get hurt just like anyone else’s.  Diana DeGarmo makes Doralee’s heartbreak my heartbreak with that song.

And when Mamie Parris as Judy Bernly sings “Get Out and Stay Out” her transformation from timidly brave to truly confident is palpable and inspiring.

As I mentioned earlier, Franklin Hart, Jr. comes to life in a funny way as more than a cardboard jerk when Joseph Mahowald sings the slimy-sexual “Here for You” song.  Kristine Zbornik is paradoxically hilarious and sad as she sings Roz’s “Heart to Hart” fantasy. 

Roz actually gets two character-defining songs.  I laughed at Kristine’s rendition of “5 to 9” but I am a recovering workaholic myself and so I also empathized with Roz singing about how difficult and lonely those pm hours can be.

The “Around Here” song is catchy and makes me want to dance, but it also perfectly evokes the feeling of being continuously rushed, continuously under a time crunch that is true for many office environments.

And, of course, I leapt to my feet with everyone else at the end to clap and sing the show’s title song along with the cast.

The dancing is high-energy. (I especially love Michelle Marmolejo’s graceful lifts and Jesse JP Johnson’s athletic flips!) The costumes and hairstyles (especialy the men’s) are amusingly period.  The set, with its frame of 1979 pop culture references and its Rubiks Cube-like pieces, is clever and versatile. 

In fact, one of the reasons I wanted to see the show again was to look more closely at why the set succeeded so well for me.  I think one reason is that the mix of vertical office wall panels and horizontal lines from “fluorescent” office lights filled the huge stage space in a satisfying way without making the performers look disproportionately tiny, especially since it was softened by a subtle rainbow of theatre light changes that fit the mood of each scene.   Another reason is that the large cubes on the set that cast members flipped and turned to create new settings were fascinating to watch.  Another reason is the recurring visual of traditional round clock faces, with and without hands, that evoked both the corporate world’s worship of factory-based time as money, and the idea that life is about more than punching in and out of a job.

I also enjoyed seeing Dolly Parton again, even if only in a video appearance at the beginning and end of the show.

Yup, I loved this show for many reasons.  ‘Wish I could have seen it a third time while it was here.

Audience and Appeal Factors

This show would be a great choice for “Ladies Night Out” but it is not a man-bashing show so it would also be fun for Date Night, too, I think.  Hart gets beat up quite a bit in a stylized way, but it is because he himself is a jerk, not because “all men are jerks.”  At the end of the show, the owner of the company, Mr. Tinsworthy (Wayne Schroder) pays a surprise visit to the office.  He takes Violet’s hand as he listens to her, and when Hart tries to interrupt, Tinsworthy says, “Quiet, Hart!  I’m talking to a lady.”  The difference between Hart’s obnoxious sexism and Tinsworthy’s courtly, perhaps more acceptable sexism is their intent.

Anyway, I think men could enjoy this show, too.

It is also a show for people who like the emotional pull of country music as well as the emotional pull of show tunes.

When I first started thinking about this review, I was going to say that people who liked the movie would also like this show, but I have since learned that that is not necessarily true.  Ah, well.

Who Did What In This Show

Since I want the basic information from my program to be searchable later here on my blog, I am recording it here:

“9 to 5: the Musical” is presented by Broadway Across America/Indianapolis, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Fox Theatricals, Theatre Under the Stars, Robert G. Bartner and Howard Panter for ATG, Independent Presenters Network, and Nederlander Organization.

It has music and lyrics by Dolly Parton, book by Patricia Resnick.  It was directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun, co-choreographed by Lisa Stevens.  Music supervision and vocal arrangements are by Stephen Oremus. 

It stars Dee Hoty (Violet Newstead), Mamie Parris (Judy Bernly), Diana DeGarmo (Doralee Rhodes), Joseph Mahowald (Franklin Hart, Jr.), and Kristine Zbornik (Roz Keith).

The ensemble of wonderful singer-dancers includes Randy Aaron, Jane Blass (who also plays Margaret the alcoholic co-worker), Patrick Boyd, Paul Castree (who also plays co-worker Bob Enright), Janet Dickinson, Madeleine Doherty, Natalie Charle’ Ellis (who also plays Frank’s wife, Missy), Marjorie Failoni, Gregg Goodbrod (who also plays Joe – see photo, above), K.J. Hippensteel , Jesse JP Johnson (who also plays Violet’s teenaged son, Josh), Michelle Marmolejo (who also plays Maria, the co-worker who gets fired for asking people their salaries), Ashley Moniz (who also plays the hospital candy striper), April Nixon (who also plays Kathy – I think she was the co-worker that needed an attitude adjustment), Ryah Nixon, Rick Pessagno, Wayne Schroder (who also plays Judy’s ex-husband, Dick, and Tinsworthy, and the police detective at the hospital), Micah Shepard (who also plays Doralee’s husband, Dwayne), and Travis Waldschmidt.

The orchestra is conducted by Martyn Axe.  Associate conductor Christopher D. Littlefield is on keyboard.  Chuck Pierce is on guitar.  Greg Germann is on drums.  Michael Keller is the music coordinator.  Randy Cohen does the keyboard programming.  Emily Grishman does the music copying.  Emily Grishman and Katharine Edmonds do the music preparation.

Scenic design by Kenneth Foy.  Costume design by William Ivey Long.  Lighting design by Ken Billington.  Sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy. Casting by Telsey & Company.  Projection design by Benjamin Pearcy.  Hair design by Paul Huntley & Edward J. Wilson.  Aerial design by Paul Rubin.  Puppet design by The Puppet Kitchen.

Production supervisor is John R. Edkins.  Production stage manager is Daniel S. Rosokoff.  Associate director is Richard J. Hinds.  General management is by NLA/Maggie Brown.  Tour Press & Marketing is by Anita Dloniak & Associates, Inc.  Orchestrator is Bruce Coughlin.  Additional orchestrations & incidental music arrangements by Stephen Oremus & Alex Lacamoire.  Dance music arrangements are by Alex Lacamoire.  Music director is Martyn Axe.  Music coordinator is Michael Keller.

Box Office

As I mentioned earlier, this tour was only in Indianapolis through last Sunday.  The next Broadway Across America touring production to come through Indy will be “Grease,” March 22-27, 2011, also at Clowes Memorial Hall.  According to my press kit, regular tickets go on sale beginning February 11, 2011.

(Greased Lightin’!  Will Blum, Brian Crum, David Ruffin, Eric Schneider, and Nick Verina.  Photo by Joan Marcus.)

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and www.twitter.com/IndyTheatre.

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