CNY Playhouse’s ‘9 to 5 The Musical’ offers ribald humor with plenty of laughs
But Patricia Resnick’s book is too weak to make credible the oppressed office workers’ character transformations
The Central New York Playhouse production of 9 to 5 The Musical, Dolly Parton’s reworking of the 1980 hit film by the same name, provides laugh-out-loud comic moments. What’s lacking is a believable story arc that allows the audience to buy in to the radical transformation the characters undergo.
In the last few years, conversations and news stories have returned once again to issues of gender in the workplace. Related issues of sexual harassment, the glass ceiling, gender based hiring, promotion and pay discrepancies have dominated the media. Against this backdrop I was looking forward to seeing 9 to 5 The Musical.
The 1980 film, while in no way a rigorous critique of the role patriarchy plays in the workplace, did provide an entry to discussions about workplace discrimination. I had hoped that the musical version, written and first performed in 2008, would update the topic and address its relevance to contemporary society. Wishful thinking. From the beginning of the musical it is clear that the story is content to leave these sticky issues firmly in the past.
A voice-over narration informs the audience that the setting here is 1979, reminding viewers that back in those days the only thoughts a boss might have about a women’s place in the office was wondering if she’d be under his desk. This is the first in a series of near-constant reminders that the show will provide a nostalgic retrospect to the 70s, where we can chuckle at their bad fashion habits and feel superior to the bald-faced sexism that was routine back then.
All this highlights the current narrative that issues of sexism, gender equality, and workplace harassment have been solved. (I am reminded of the bumper sticker: “I’ll be post feminist in the post patriarchy.”)
While reasonable people may disagree about the level of gender inequality, and few would disagree that the contemporary workplace is a much less dangerous and alienating place for women than it was in 1979, to suggest that gender is no longer an issue strikes me as disingenuous — if not downright misleading.
To be sure, my critique speaks more to the book and lyrics than it does CNY Playhouse’s satisfying presentation of the musical. If anything, it speaks highly of the company’s degree of professionalism that despite this (and a few other issues), audience members left the theater looking as if they had thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Still, I would be remiss if I were to ignore the issue of gender inequality entirely.
The musical remains fairly true to the plot of the seminal 1980’s workplace comedy, but highlights the absurdities of the plot and turns it into a broad sex farce filled with ribald innuendo and risqué physical humor.
Three secretaries at a firm run by misogynist boss Frederick Hart (portrayed with a gleefully lascivious degeneracy by Robert G. Searle — an actor with a real gift for physical humor, pratfall and pantomime) are fed-up with his constant harassment and discrimination. After mistakenly poisoning him, the ladies kidnap him and run the office in his stead. In the process the women gain their own voice, ultimately proving that an egalitarian workplace is a better functioning and more productive one.
Three secretaries (Violet, Doralee and Judy) are stand-ins for the typical assortment of women found in the workplace back then. Violet, a widowed and harried single mother, has been the real brains and organizational force behind the office for years. Shannon Tompkins’s brilliant comic timing makes Violet’s scenes among the funniest of the play, capturing perfectly the double-takes and snarky responses of the overworked, underpaid and under-appreciated secretary. Unfortunately, Tompkins’s songs were marred for a while by technical difficulty with her audio equipment — after which her voice sounded a bit uneven and unable to match the vocal fireworks of her two costars.
As Violet’s voluptuous colleague Doralee, Korrie Taylor plays the role made famous by Dolly Parton, a transplanted working class rural southerner struggling to be taken seriously and trying desperately to be noticed for something other than her ample cleavage and bleach-blonde bouffant.
Korrie Taylor wonderfully filled Ms. Parton’s shoes with a strong country-tinged voice in one of the standout performances of the evening: Cowgirl’s Revenge — a rollicking number revealing her fantasy about hog-tying the boss (foreshadowing the eventual kidnapping). As Taylor’s rich voice filled the venue, the ensemble delightfully hoed down in colorful western garb around her. This number was musical spectacle at its best. (Parton built a career in country and western because few could write better songs in this genre.)
Taylor, after a few hiccups in the earlier songs, crafted a performance that was confidant and commanding. It was a joy to see her belt out this number. The stage was filled with dancing bodies, and Director and Choreographer Stephfond Burnson provided the audience with a visual spectacle that bordered on overwhelming — yet never veering into cluttered chaos. Finally, Searle’s slapstick pratfalls (as he was subdued and trussed) added humor and farce to the spectacle. The audience’s cheers at the conclusion of the number were ample evidence of its success.
Judy represents the final type of female office worker explored in this play: the ingénue unprepared for her entry into the workplace. Gabrielle Gorman’s character arrives on stage apparently frightened by her own shadow — painfully self conscious and unprepared to care for herself now that her husband has left her for his young secretary. Judy nonsensically spouts out “fun facts” and trivia when she’s nervous, and bursts into tears at the slightest provocation.
Gorman’s over-the-top combination of shyness and nervousness left me a bit unprepared for the strength of her voice when singing. Having just kicked her ex-husband out of her life for good, Gorman’s character, alone on stage, powerfully claims her own identity. With a hefty Broadway-sized voice, Gorman tears through the vocal gymnastics of Get Out and Stay Out, the penultimate song of the musical and climax of the show.
This was by far the strongest vocal performance of the evening. Even the firm support of the orchestra faded into the background, as Gorman powerfully emoted her way through her personal Declaration of Independence. As powerful a moment as this may be, however, it speaks to one of the weaknesses of Patricia Resnick’s book: The change occurs too quickly, and it feels unearned.
The transformation of Judy occurs seemingly overnight. A four-month period is condensed into a few minutes with the help of the musical number, Change It — where the audience must be convinced that Violet’s leadership at the firm has enabled Doralee and Judy to grow in confidence and blossom into fully formed three-dimensional charactgers. For Doralee it may work, since her transition is the least radical. (She was always more complex, nuanced and multifaceted than the others.) Judy, however — as the real protagonist of the musical in my opinion — seems to undergo this growth without any real dramatic justification. This renders the climax of the musical unsatisfying, despite Gorman’s heroic vocal efforts.
These caveats aside, CNY Playhouse continues to bring Syracuse interesting and enjoyable theater in the most unlikely of spaces: a shopping mall. If you’re looking for an evening filled with laugh-out-loud ribald humor, and you enjoy musical spectacle with a generous sprinkling of raunch, you’ll no doubt enjoy the company’s new production of 9 to 5 The Musical.
What: 9 to 5: The Musical, book by Patricia Resnick; music and lyrics by Dolly Parton
Who: Central New York Playhouse, directed by Stephfond Brunson, musical direction by Abel Searor
Where: Shoppingtown Mall, Dewitt NY
Performance reviewed: Friday, September 11, 2015 (opening night)
Remaining performances: Plays through September 26
Length: About two hours and 15 minutes, including intermission
Ticket Information: Call 315-885-8960 or http://www.cnyplayhouse.com
Tickets: $22 to $25; $39.95 dinner & show (Sat. 9/19 only)
Family guide: Violence, gunfire, adult language, adult situations, adult humor.