While wandering into the theatre and taking our seats, it’s comforting to know – ‘cause we’ve already seen the hit 1980 movie from which Dolly Parton presents 9 To 5 The Musical was adapted – that justice will prevail at the conclusion of this “gold carat fun” feel-good show.
And what an absolute hoot it is to see Dolly’s iconic visage – all sunshine and positivity – on screen as narrator! Her glowing presence pops up from time to time within the 9 To 5 prop’s ‘o’, which is styled as a giant alarm clock when not required for Dolly transmissions. We’re even treated to Dolly singing a segment of this musical’s titular song (like no one else can, obviously) as part of 9 To 5 The Musical’s triumphant finale.
During the opening getting-ready-for-work sequence of this cinema-to-stage adaptation, the audience can’t get enough of one male ensemble member’s comically enhanced ‘morning wood’. As theatregoers nudge their neighbours and point out this scene-stealing protuberance, peals of laughter intensify throughout the State Theatre – talk about setting the tone.
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9 To 5 The Musical’s minimal stage set features a proscenium arch composed of clunky, old-school computer monitors with their screens illuminating in seemingly endless colour combinations and complementing the overall lighting design. Just like the costuming, this set gradually transforms throughout 9 To 5 The Musical – from rather drab and conservative to later incorporating splashes of bright colour – as the “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” boss character, Franklin Hart Jnr., loses his foothold and employee morale skyrockets.
Eddie Perfect, as Frank, seems to relish being utterly repugnant, which makes it extra satisfying when the audience gets to watch him [*spoiler alert if you’re unfamiliar with the plot*] squirm after he’s eventually kidnapped, dressed in his own bondage gear and suspended from the ceiling of the S&M den inside his home. To conclude Act One, Frank is left dangling, visible even after the house lights illuminate. Staying in character, Perfect breaks the fourth wall – much to our delight – and strongly suggests we stop gawking at him, get off our arses and refresh our drinks or take a bathroom break. Then the mid-curtain eventually drops and he’s out of view.
Following intermission, the curtain lifts and we return to this exact same humiliating scene – Frank still dangling there as if he hasn’t been lowered throughout the entirety of the 30-minute break. Many audible audience groans are emitted in response to Frank’s dialogue throughout (especially the tiresome ‘it must be that time of the month’ line), which means Perfect’s doing a great job. We’re supposed to hate him. And Perfect’s boy-man looks really work for him in this role, too.
It has to be said that a live orchestra elevates the entire musical experience, but the vocals could definitely have been more prominent in the mix. We often struggle to comprehend lyrics, which – although 9 To 5 The Musical’s plot is easy enough to follow – makes it difficult to fully invest in/detest the characters as desired. In saying that, we experience no such issue during Caroline O’Connor’s numbers and hang off her every syllable.
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As Frank’s devoted PA, O’Connor – international musical theatre superstar and queen of character comedy that she is – delivers the performance her 9 To 5 The Musical castmates should strive to match. Act One’s highlight sees O’Connor performing ‘Heart To Hart’, absolutely cutting loose as Roz expresses her unrequited love/lust for Frank. Her characterisation is superb and O’Connor moves like a sprightly nymph. Thanks to many years of intensive dance training, O’Connor has total control of every single muscle in her body and her execution and comedic timing are flawless.
Another standout number in 9 To 5 The Musical’s songbook is ‘One Of The Boys’, performed by the ambitious career-woman character, Violet Newstead, backed by suited-up dancers – both male and female – sporting matching masculine hairstyles/wigs. As Violet, Prior unfortunately stands out as a non-dancer here.
Casey Donovan – as office newbie Judy Bernly, a character we can’t help but root for – earns rapturous applause following her convincing rendition of ‘Get Out And Stay Out’, directed towards her ex-husband, which approaches a Whitney Houston ‘I Have Nothing’-level moment – a clear contender for best performance of Act Two. We also find it impossible to resist the predictable gags relating to the name of Judy’s hubby, Dick (eg. “I miss Dick”).
Choreographer Lisa Stevens cleverly incorporates some ‘80s power moves, such as barrel jumps and classic high kicks throughout 9 To 5 The Musical (the chorey from Solid Gold, an American TV variety show produced in the ‘80s, springs to mind) and the ensemble also double as stage hands, changing sets so fluidly that reveals unfold with David Blaine-level ease.
Towards the end of 9 To 5 The Musical, an exasperated Violet says, “We just wanna be seen and treated as members of the human race,” and it’s hard not to feel exhausted by the constant reminders that we’re still banging on about the same gender disparities outlined here – such as equal pay/access to promotions in the workplace – four decades since this movie first hit cinemas.
9 To 5 The Musical was originally slated to make its Australian premiere in 2020, opening in Sydney and then heading to Melbourne, but was postponed just like everything else due to Covid the fun sponge. Finally witnessing this talented cast gracing the State Theatre stage, doing what they were put on this planet to do, is a privilege and their collective joy is both palpable and infectious. 9 To 5 The Musical is escapism at its finest.
Fun fact: You know the clickety-clack that sounds like typing during the hit song ‘9 To 5’? Well, that’s Dolly using her signature acrylic nails as a percussion instrument.
Catch 9 To 5 The Musical at the State Theatre until 11 September: artscentremelbourne.com.au