There seems to be no shortage of movie adaptations making their way to the stage at the moment. One of the most anticipated productions now enjoying a national tour of the UK is Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5: The Musical, checking in at The Leeds Grand Theatre this month.
Adapted from the 1980 movie of the same name, the play tells the story of Judy Bernley as she joins a busy office under the guidance of overworked single mum Violet Newstead. Struggling with her job, Judy soon befriends buxom blonde secretary Doralee, who herself is horrified to discover that the office believe she’s having an affair with bully boss Franklin J. Hart. The three women soon fantasise about torturing Hart, and in the throes of desperation begin an abduction plot which becomes an absurd reality. Set against a colourful vintage backdrop and a number of Parton’s classic tunes, with many written specifically for the show, 9 to 5 is a fun yet critical re-imagining of a bygone era where women were treated as sex objects by moustached, whisky drinking businessmen.
A commendable move in the creation of this show is to draw heavily on its ‘period’ setting, placing it in 1979 and enlivening the production design with outrageous Seventies motifs. Unlike the film, which rode the crest of 1980 with some Seventies influences, 9 to 5: The Musical has a firm identity as a wholly Seventies extravaganza, where high camp fashions are paraded in a technologically primitive and politically incorrect world. Huge telephones, nylon shirts, polyester blouses and big hair all help to buttress the recent past on stage. Patricia Resnik’s book has distilled the essence of the story into short scenes, allowing Parton’s music to tell the majority of the story through song. Lyrically impressive and often truly emotional, the songs are above all very catchy with a strong Western flavour. Stephen Oremus’ orchestral arrangement provides a satisfying Broadway scale, with the addition of synth strings, slap bass and wah-wah electric guitars imbruing an element of Seventies funk. As such, 9 to 5 is as much a kitsch piece of Seventies pop-art as it is a camp classic, destined to delight fans of all things retro.
Parton’s music is consistently strong with an authentic musical theatre flavour; the recurring 9 to 5 theme will cause many toes to be tapped to the iconic bass line. Dolly fans will also be sated with the inclusion of classics such as Backwoods Barbie, however newly composed numbers such as One of the Boys and Here for You prove that Parton’s writing talent is inexhaustible, placing 9 to 5 far above that of a jukebox musical of hits.
The show contains a seemingly vast cast and ensemble who all exhibit excellent standards of dance and vocal performance. Particular highlights include Ben Richards in the unenviable role as Franklyn J Hart, a character who is tortured, stripped, and physically suspended for a good portion of the show. Jackie Clune as Violet is perhaps the strongest character in the play and provides a great balance of pathos and comedy in her performance, in addition to showcasing some superb dance and vocals. Natalie Casey is adorably quirky as the nervous Judy, whilst Amy Lennox makes an impact as Doralee, imitating the inflections of Dolly Parton’s tone whilst bringing an added dimension of her own style to the character. Without doubt Lennox’s performance is going to be compared to that of Parton’s, and it succeeds in not only convincing, but also functioning beyond that of pure imitation. A host of memorable characters give added value to the production, with an explosive performance from Bonnie Langford as Roz Keith, a frustrated assistant who is transformed into a sex pot in a startling dance sequence. Lori Haley Fox also delivers some wonderful comic relief in the guide of Margaret, a quivering alcoholic who undergoes a butterfly-like transformation.
Jeff Calhoun’s direction has all the scale and slick choreography expected of a Broadway musical. Imaginative and evocative, the production is highly visual and boasts dozens of rapid scene changes, cross cutting much like a movie. Dance routines are highly energetic with strong disco influences which impress, particularly in ensemble pieces. The pace of the production is relentless and insists on giving value at every turn; it must include some of the fastest, numerous and creative costume changes to be seen in contemporary musical theatre. Creative interludes which include Dolly Parton herself – through some impressive projection effects – are an ingenious addition, performed more than a little tongue-in-cheek.
9 to 5: The Musical refuses to take itself seriously and asks audiences to do the same in order to enjoy the roller-coaster ride. Frothy, fast and unashamedly good fun, it starts out camp and launches into a whole crazy world of glitter, sequins, law-breaking and percolated coffee. Ultimately a musical farce with a whole lot of heart, 9 to 5 delivers good laughs with good tunes all the way.