That the makers of the musical 9 to 5 know a thing or two about their audience and how to target them becomes apparent almost immediately. A digital Dolly Parton is beamed onto a giant clock at the start of the show to introduce the main characters and put the action in context. Her appearance is greeted by whoops of applause, but Parton’s ‘presence’ is both a boon and a problem for this production. It buys an awful lot of goodwill (there are lots of jokes about the ‘Backwoods Barbie’ Doralee’s physical characteristics that only work because the memory of Parton in the role remains so fresh) but such star wattage casts a long shadow, and after being dazzled by Dolly, the rest of the performers, skilled as they are, don’t quite match up.
There’s a similar issue with the musical numbers: when you bookend a show with such an iconic song, the rest of the tunes (even if they are by Parton herself) can seem a little forgettable, though it’s hard not to love a song called ‘Sexist, Egotistical, Lying, Hypocritical Bigot.’
Those slight caveats aside, 9 to 5 is hugely entertaining; in fact it seems almost curmudgeonly to pick holes in what has clearly, first and foremost, been designed as a piece of entertainment, a great night out. On this score, it mostly delivers, thanks to a talented cast backed by lively direction and choreography by Jeff Calhoun. Thanks too to Kenneth Foy’s design, which manages to conjure the era while allowing the fantasy sequences full reign to be wonderfully garish. I do wish, though, they had paid more attention to the sight lines – one running joke, and key plot point – featuring a broken chair sailed right by me, as I couldn’t see what was going on from the stalls.
The story – of three women who take revenge on their male chauvinist boss – may play out in fairly preposterous ways, but remains as crowd pleasing as ever. Ben Richards is hiss-worthily horrible as the sexist Hart, and as his trio of righteous tormentors Jackie Clune, Natalie Casey and Amy Lennox are all likeable heroines. Casey ably uses her physicality as the frumpy, deserted wife Judy, while Clune’s working mum Violet is brisk and capable, hiding a soft heart under a tough exterior. Lennox in some ways has both the easiest and the hardest role as Parton’s alter ego, blonde bombshell Doralee (we like her already, but we’re making tough comparisons), but brings real heart to the role. You feel genuinely sorry for her when she is being ostracised in the office, and the show is a smart reminder it’s not the hot blonde who’s the enemy, it’s the system that convinces you you’re in competition with the hot blonde that’s the real problem. Anita Louise Combe also excels as Hart’s lovelorn crony Roz (her solo number, Heart to Hart, is a comic highlight.) None are outstanding vocalists, but all bring plenty of character to their numbers, and they’re supported by a talented, energetic cast.
What’s most notable about the production is that it doesn’t feel nearly as dated as it should; for all its polyester dresses and pre-sexual harassment politics, the problems the women face (discrimination based on their looks, the glass ceiling, pay discrepancy) feel all too current. With women still earning roughly 80% that of their male counterparts and only accounting for around 4% of Fortune 500 CEO positions, 9 to 5 isn’t just an entertaining show, it also remains a relevant one.