BWW Reviews: Revamped '9 TO 5' Musical Makes It Work

By: May. 12, 2011

Back in September of 2008, when the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles began its pre-Broadway tryouts for a brand-spanking new stage musical based on the hit 1980 comedy film 9 to 5, all eyes (and ears) were focused on the great possibilities in the debut stage work of its chief musical officer, Dolly Parton, who fashioned a new evolutionary second life for a beloved movie that's lovingly seared into pop culture. The property itself is, understandably, a special one for the country music superstar: in it, Parton made her triumphant feature film debut alongside marquis co-stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.

What many—including myself—saw in that initial out-of-town tryout of 9 TO 5: THE MUSICAL certainly had the makings of a really fun, entertaining new show, sprinkled generously with many new catchy Parton-penned tunes, lots of memorable scenes plucked directly out of the movie, and even a few newly-highlighted characters that enhanced the familiar story. The sets—complete with pneumatically-disappearing columns and a gigantic Xerox machine that goes horribly awry—were indeed amazing and the costumes were nothing less than period chic. It was a genuine good time.

As expected, the show was far from perfect (then again, what out-of-town tryout ever is right out of the gate?). It's initial run was full of over-padded scenes, one or two so-so songs, many unnecessary plot tangents, and even oddly-placed transitions. The show spent so much time making things seem "bigger" and more whiz-bang for staging purposes that it left most of the charming characteristics of the original film a bit half-hearted. Nonetheless, the show, for myself, had enough worthy ingredients in its "pro" column to make me really excited about its future. It truly helped that the show—leaving nothing to chance—cast three powerhouse lead actors (Tony nominee Allison Janney, Stephanie J. Block and Megan Hilty) to fill the shoes of their former film counterparts... all of whom went on to star in the show's re-jiggered Broadway incarnation that closed in September 2009.

Yet another year later, the new, even more revamped version of the show began its 1st US National Tour in Nashville in September 2010, and has now made its way here to Southern California at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Orange County for a week-long engagement through May 10. Now under the direction of Jeff Calhoun, the zippier, more compact—and arguably better—reincarnation of the musical is a pleasing concoction beaming with cute 80's nostalgia, hilarious one-liners, terrific soap-y over-the-top-ness, and a trio of central characters so darn appealing, you'd gladly share a spontaneous joint with them should the occasion arises (privately, of course).

No doubt, this new version still retains the spirit of the original film without losing all of the entertaining elements that I loved in the original 2008 L.A. experiment. With a book written by Patricia Resnick—who also co-wrote the original screenplay with the film's director Colin Higgins—the story remains the same: three smart women, in various stages in their personal lives, struggle with their places in the suffocating, male-dominated workplace environment of Corporate America.

Here at Consolidated Companies, you'll find smart, business-savvy office manager Violet Newstead (a winning Dee Hoty), a single mother—of a certain age—who, despite her enterprising ideas and years of seniority and experience, routinely gets passed over for promotions by men she herself once trained. The play opens as Violet takes pity on deer-in-headlights newbie Judy Bernly (the outstanding Mamie Parris), a freshly-divorced housewife who's necessitated into entering the workforce for the first time after her loutish ex-husband ran off with his much younger secretary. Now alone on her own, she's finding it quite challenging to be a working woman.

And then there's comely secretary Doralee Rhodes (the wonderful Diana DeGarmo), a happily married sweet-and-sassy Southern Belle whose sunny exterior disposition hides a deeper pain underneath. Apparently, the buxom gal is the target of some vicious (untrue) office gossip that's made everyone keep their distance: that she's sleeping with her sleazy boss, the acerbic, tyrannical misogynist Franklin Hart Jr. (Joseph Mahowald), who rules the floor as company president. The women not only put up with the chauvinistic behavior he encourages among the other males in the company, but they also have to keep their eyes out for office busy-body Roz Keith (scene-stealer Kristine Zbornik), Hart's nosy administrative assistant hell-bent on enforcing the strict office rules (her Gestapo-flavored haircut is no coincidence). Humorously, she also harbors a not-so-secret stalker-like crush on her boss.

You may wonder, why would any woman ever put up with working in such a degrading environment? For Violet, in particular, it has always been for the possibilities of upward mobility—a carrot that Hart has dangled in front of her that he never plans on ever giving her. She realizes this even more so when, once again, she's passed over for another huge promotion that's been awarded to a man she trained and has less seniority. Fed up, she gives Hart a piece of her mind, subsequently outing his lie about sleeping with his secretary, which, of course, Doralee vehemently denies. Meanwhile, Judy's office friend is summarily fired just for discussing the salary ratios between the men versus the women.

Livid with Hart, all three women form a make-shift union of disgruntled worker bees and convene at Violet's home for an herbally-enhanced sharing of grievances, sharing a joint given to Violet by her son. High and loose—and laughing hysterically—each takes turns fantasizing about how they would murder their wicked boss. The next day, Violet accidentally lives out her fantasy by inadvertently sprinkling rat poison into Hart's coffee instead of his usual sugar substitute.

Panic ensues, but the three are shocked that somehow Hart survives the ordeal (he was never in any danger, nor did he even make it to the hospital). When Hart learns of the accidental scheme—courtesy of Roz's bathroom eavesdropping, of course—he confronts his secretary, only to find himself on the wrong end of Doralee's gun. Soon the trio concoct a plan to confine and literally string up Hart in his own home, bound and gagged in a harness hoisted by Violet's automatic remote-controlled garage door opener. Meanwhile, back at the office, the ladies—under Hart's name—enact sweeping positive changes throughout the office that not only increase productivity, but also provides a happier work environment. But how long can they keep this charade going?

A charmingly-executed musical, 9 TO 5 is a lovable confection that pays ample tribute to the film that spawned it, without seeming like just a direct rehash. Amplified by often funny dialogue and those hummable new songs from Parton, the show, in its current incarnation, is its most improved yet. In addition to its creatively smaller-scale set that literally wheels in and out with seamless certitude, the tour's obvious alterations from previous versions feel much more well-intentioned. The show feels somehow friendlier, too, and more palatable in its treatment of each vignette and production number. It's certainly a swifter, better-paced show than what I first saw at the Ahmanson Theater during its pre-Broadway tryouts.

As for the changes, I can say wholeheartedly that I won't miss the filler song "Always A Woman," which has been cut from the tour, nor will I miss the extended Xerox machine fiasco. One of the show's musical highlights for me is "I Just Might" a song that was not in the Ahmanson production. With all three women singing of love, loss, heartache, and longing in this beautiful, soaring anthem, this alone sets the underlying drama of an otherwise laugh-filled musical extravaganza.

Still really problematic for me, though—even as shortened and truncated as they are here on the tour—are those pesky, difficult-to-reinterpret fantasy sequences. While they are certainly memorable, significant highlights in the film (likely non-negotiable sequences demanded in the stage version), the trio of vignettes—which, sure, are kind of fun to watch—all still feel really interruptive to the narrative's forward trajectory. Here in the stage musical version, the scenes, I feel, make everything come to a grinding, screeching halt.

And, ironically, these same fantasy vignettes also feel strangely tame. I say, if you're going to insist on showcasing these fantasy sequences, make them more outlandish and way WAY more over-the-top! It seems perplexing to me that the rousing "Around Here" production number—set amongst the rows of vanilla-flavored desks that line the main office set—feels more exciting, kinetic and entertaining than the pot-inducEd Hallucinations of our funny trio. Although, I do have to say, that I did think the puppetry of the woodland creatures in Violet's fantasy was a cuter touch than the pseudo-animation that was projected at the Ahmanson.

But of all the new changes, perhaps the show's shrewdest, smartest move in transitioning the show into a nationwide-touring enterprise is bookending it with 9 TO 5's most significant aspect: Dolly Parton herself! Projected onto a cylindrical screen that hovers above the stage like Glinda's bubble, the show's famous fairy godmother welcomes the audience, then proceeds to specifically lay out the impending events about to be dramatized on stage. One-by-one, she introduces the characters in her precious Dolly-esque way that quickly endears the show to even the most hardened of hearts. By directly involving Parton visually and showing her creatively-omniscient presence early on, the show gets, in essence, her blessing, effectively putting her stamp on the project—much like having Oprah Winfrey's name hover above the title of The Color Purple musical.

The cast, particularly the three leads, also add to the show's fun factor. As den mother/ringleader Violet, Broadway stage vet Hoty is luminescent in her Joan Crawford-sized shoulder pads. Firm, yet able to laugh and kick it with the gals, Hoty adds her own great spin to a role that can be proudly displayed shoulder-to-shoulder with the performances given by Lily Tomlin and Allison Janey before her. When she becomes "One Of the Boys," during the Act 2 opener (frankly, a better "fantasy sequence"), she reminds the audience just what a great hoofer she truly is.

As Judy, Parris turns in a performance that exquisitely straddles innocence and sexiness. By the time she hits those high notes in her big 11 o'clock number "Get Out And Stay Out," we're all ready to get behind her in solidarity. What a beautiful job on that song!

And in the show's arguably showy-est role, DeGarmo—channeling a slightly perkier version of Dolly's cinematic creation—is just the most adorable thing in high heels I've seen in a long time. Delightfully overemphasizing her slightly exaggerated Dolly-esque Southern drawl with a higher-pitched Betty Boop-ish tone, DeGarmo proves what an impressive comedienne she's become since her crooning days on American Idol. With impeccable comic timing during the funnier moments and lush pop-tinged vocals during the ballads, she's really quite a great casting choice to fill Dolly's enormous... shoes.

The supporting cast is also fantastic. Mahowald makes the most of his "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot" with great panache. Gregg Goodbrod is introduced as Joe, a May-December love interest for Hoty's Violet that's pretty charming, if a bit downplayed (the role feels more reduced in the tour or was I imagining it?) And as Roz, Zbornik effectively steals the show with each appearance, especially during "Heart to Hart" a rather naughty burlesque number where her character declares a lustful passion for her boss. The role has been boosted from the film version, and rightly so. As a complete ensemble, the company sings in great harmony.

All in all, while still not the most perfect show out there, 9 TO 5: THE MUSICAL is a show worthy of your time, if only to hear Parton's great music performed live by a funny, terrific cast and, also, to see the film come to life in a more heightened, over-the-top way. The 80's pop culture references zip by with laugh-a-minute speed and the sight gags are bawdy but never salacious. Bursting with charm and cuteness, the show is a lovelier way to take in social commentary on female empowerment and friendships. It's great, too, to witness three very different women from different walks of life, coming together in unison to break into the 'good ol' Boys' Club' of corporate one-upmanship... and triumph.

Watching this show, you can't help but realize, man, what a fun job these actors have... literally workin' 9 to 5... what a way to make a livin'!

Read BWW's Interview with star Diana DeGarmo: here.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8ivemlq

All photos by Joan Marcus. From top to bottom: The office ladies - Diana DeGarmo, Dee Hoty, Mamie Parris; Joseph Mahowald gets strung up; Kristine Zbornik sings a love song to her boss' picture; Dolly Parton and the office ladies.


Performances of '9 TO 5: THE MUSICAL' at The Segerstrom Center of the Arts continue through May 15, 2011 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm.

Ticket prices start at $20 and can be purchased online at, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). A limited amount of Student/Senior Rush tickets are available for all performances except Saturday shows.

Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.

For more information, please visit or the show's official site at

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