9 to 5 The Musical (QPAC) – theatre review

Based on the original 1980 film of the same name starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, 9 to 5 The Musical is a workplace revenge comedy that follows the story of three women, each subjected to sexual discrimination and inequality in the workplace. Their takedown of male chauvinism appropriately begins, via pre-recorded video with Dolly Parton (who wrote the music and lyrics herself), introducing the audience to the story’s leading ladies and taking us into its opening, iconic title song.

This is the world of 1981, complete with of-era mentions of Atari et al. Chauvinism abounds in the workplace with unequal pay, sexist jokes and a yet unnamed, but still very real, glass ceiling for female executives. This sets the scene for a gender battle between the three disgruntled office workers Violet Newstead (Marina Prior), Doralee Rhodes (Erin Clare) and new employee Judy Bernly (Casey Donovan) and their narcissistic boss Frankin Hart Jrn (Eddie Perfect), president of Consolidated Industries.

Photos by David Hooley

Tired of being passed over, harassed and disrespected, the three women take their revenge by holding their boss captive while they run company under his guise. Under them, things are transformed and productivity increases. The workplace literally lightens up with Tom Roger’s set and costume design taking us from the monochromatic office of Act I to splashes of ‘80s neon and a lot of fun. Indeed, design elements bring about much the musical’s experience. The stage, for example, is framed by a string of boxy computers. Smooth scene changes means things move swiftly, especially during a slickly choreographed hospital scene of many moving parts and bodies, both dead and alive.

A strong cast fronts an energetic ensemble. There is a good chemistry between Prior, Donovan and Clare, especially as they bond over their fantasies of enacting revenge on their sexist boss. They are all given independent moments to shine. Prior is sharp as the smart widowed mother Violet, constantly being passed up for promotion in the boys’ club world. Frustrated, but not bitter, she engages us with her wit.

Clare is wonderful as the initially misunderstood sexy country gal Dorale, secretary to Hart. She captures her blend of warm optimism and no-nonsense comic timing. Her “Backwoods Barbie” playful plea to not be judged by her looks is vocally powerful, balancing a light airiness with a nip of grit. Perfect seems to love every minute of his time as the smarmy sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot boss, always attempting to seduce Doralee. One of the show’s comic highlights comes courtesy of Caroline O’Connor’s antics as the infatuated Roz, culminating in the fantasy tango sequence “Heart to Hart”, in which she confesses her obsessive love.

The star of the show is Casey Donovan. In a departure from her previous musical roles, she plays Judy’s soft-spoken meekness to wide-eye perfection as she embarks upon her first foray into the working world after her husband runs off with his secretary. Donovan makes Judy’s change into a force of reckoning believable in the subtlety of its transition. Her Act II power ballad “Get Out and Stay Out” is an emotional highlight.

9 to 5 The Musical is a fast-paced, energetic slice of nostalgia. While it may be a pantomime-like delight, there is still a degree of substance through some of its ironic comments about equal pay for equal work and the addition of epilogues. For all its silliness and occasional contradictions, there is a clear, overriding message of feminist empowerment.

The production preserves the key elements that made the original film such an audience favourite. It is full of moments to delight those who are familiar with the source material. For those who aren’t, it is still a whole heap of fun.

It is playing at Lyric Theatre, Q-PAC until 2nd July, 2022.

Meredith Walker
For more of Meredith Walker’s writings on theatre, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane

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