BWW Review: Mad Theatre of Tampa's Production of 9 TO 5: THE MUSICAL Is Quite Timely in the #MeToo Era
Musicals often act as mirrors of our lives. Shows like Hair in the hippy-dippy 1960's, Rent in the grungy 1990's, and Avenue Q in the cynical 2000's reflect our society and the changing times more than most non-musicals. Sometimes shows set in the past, but with contemporary scores and attitudes, are used to ironically call attention to our present day--Kander and Ebb's Cabaret in the 1960's and Chicago in the 1970's (a hit then but coming into its own during the tabloid-fueled 1990's revival) certainly come to mind. You would never think a show like 9 TO 5: THE MUSICAL, set in 1979 and based on an iconic Dolly Parton movie, would be mentioned in the same breath as those giant musicals. Make no mistake, artistically it's not even close to those classics; but politically and socially, it's horrifyingly current in this #MeToo era. I didn't see Mr. Franklin Hart up there; I saw Mr. Harvey Weinstein. It may be called 9 TO 5, but it could be retitled Sexual Harassment: The Musical.
Mad Theatre of Tampa's production of 9 TO 5 offers lots of nice voices and some incredible moments. It has a fine group of leading players, and it's overall quite fun. But it's also incredibly inconsistent and sometimes quite sloppy, especially in some of the choreography, something which I usually don't find in a Mad show. For instance, the opening number, easily the most famous song here and one of the 1980's biggest hits, is so haphazard, where good dancers mix with not-so-good; there were just too many people onstage for the show's own good, and the dancing didn't work. The vocals as well suffered, especially right at the very top. It looked like a typical community theatre number here, where the unpaid actors do it "for the love of theatre and being onstage," and was not up to the Mad standards, where oftentimes they look more professional than many professional companies. But then the musical ultimately settled down and the standouts in the cast really had their chance to stand out.
9 TO 5's script relies so much on the original movie that I wonder what someone who doesn't know the film, or its huge #1 title song, would think of it. Would they be lost? Or would they be horrified by the antics of the heartless Mr. Hart, and yet still find it funny? Would it work at all? I know the film well, and yet the musical still didn't connect with me like I wish it could. It made me want to see the movie again, not run to my iTunes account to find the original cast album. The songs, music and lyrics by Dolly Parton, are for the most part forgettable. A few powerful tunes--like the title song and "Backwoods Barbie"--don't a great show make; there's no "Jolene" or "I Will Always Love You" here (except recordings that were sung by the cast for the pre-show music, a nice touch).
As for the script, written by Patricia Resnick, there were so many missed moments of hilarity, so many instances of a joke falling flat, that I didn't know if it was the show's fault or the performers. And Act 1 clocking in at almost an hour and half is just way too long for any comedy; Act 2, though mercifully shorter, made less sense with lots of filler songs. It was a hodgepodge, and if it weren't for the sexual harassment angle in today's world and some soul-stirring performances, would have little to offer.
Still, it doesn't hurt that there are some fine performances spotlighted here, some of the best actors and actresses in the Tampa Bay area. Casey Vaughn, so good in Next to Normal a few years back, is equally fine as Violet, the part made famous in the film by Lily Tomlin. We follow her path in particular, her struggle; she's immensely likable and we're happy to join her journey, from a hard-working woman with no chance for advancement all the way to CEO.
Melissa Doell is wonderful as Judy (Jane Fonda's part). She was a serviceable but disconnected Belle in NTP's Beauty and the Beast and very funny in Mad's Disaster: The Musical, but she owns the stage here. Her "Get Out and Stay Out" is an anthem for the ages. Stephanie Coatney as the Dolly Parton influenced Doralee Rhodes is one of the strongest in the cast, although she looks less like Dolly and more like Mamie Van Doren. She's very commanding onstage, and yet we sense her vulnerability underneath her voluptuous looks, tight red dress and obvious blond wig. Her line about changing her boss "from a rooster to a hen in one shot" easily got the most applause from the audience (even if it's not exactly right technically; but "from a rooster to a capon" just doesn't pack the same punch).
Miranda Harrison-Quillin as Roz gets the best song in the musical, the show-stopping, gospel-pumping "Heart to Hart," a rollicking ode to her love for her boss. Jessica Moraton as Maria is the strongest member of the ensemble; here's where a relatively small part is turned into perhaps the finest performance of the show.
Michael Silvestri, donned in a Seventies wig with a Burt Reynolds 'stache and looking not unlike a warped version of Tom Berenger, once again shows why he is one of our Bay Area stage treasures. Although playing a cad to end all cads--a "sexist hypocritical lying egotistical bigot"--he steals the show. He's so good that for a second we want to root for him, but we know we can't even fathom following such a misogynist bully--that's like rooting for Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird or Iago in Othello. Silvestri's so wonderful at being awful that we enjoy hating his every move. His big solo number, "Here For You," is one of the creepiest things I've seen since the "Gotta Light" episode of David Lynch's "Twin Peaks."
The rest of the cast runs the gamut from BOS (Bodies on Stage) to BQG (Being Quite Good): Allan T. Anderson, Michael Bonassar, Richard Brown, Lauren Dykes, Madeline Hebert, Henry McGriff IV, NaTasha McKeller, Douglas Michaels, Iris Moon, Camila Rodriguez, Kaitlyn Rosen, Ray Villegas, Sian Wilson and Shannon Wright.
Jarrett Koski directs and choreographs with a ton of energy, and the show is a nonstop rollercoaster. Yes, Act 1 goes on way too long, but it contains hits (Roz's solo) as well as misses (the entire dead body subplot). But Koski's verve translates to the stage. Set pieces move on and off the stage with gusto, some of the cast even doing a little dance step or two when they did this (I just wish these between-numbers moments were more consistent). However, there were some mic issues on the night I attended, and the show stopped dead near the end of Act One with an unplanned, extremely long pause that suddenly turned Dolly Parton into Harold Pinter.
Music Director Carolyn Hausman gets the most out of her cast, and the band is to die for: Hausman conducting and on piano; Amy Nickerson on keyboards; Stephen Padgett on reeds; Mic Smith on trumpet; Gordon Bonnett on guitar; Alex Pasut on bass; and Nico Remy on percussion. They sound amazing.
On a side note, once again the line at the Jaeb's bar was out of control long. This is not the bartender's fault; he needs a second person to help him, perhaps the House Manager. I mention this because audience members were coming in late to the show because of the bar's line, and this isn't fair to them.
But I found Mad's 9 TO 5 jarringly contemporary. It's a feminist dream show, and it's a ton of fun even though it deals with an extremely serious subject. The production may be inconsistent, but the musical is more powerful now than when it first opened (2008). And it's the type of show where you can bring your friends, get a drink or two (if you don't mind standing in line), and enjoy watching the story of women defeating one of the worst villains in memory and ultimately getting ahead with heart in the cutthroat business world. If only our present reality could mirror the victorious outcome of 9 TO 5...
Mad's 9 TO 5: THE MUSICAL ends its run at the Jaeb Theatre in the Straz Center for the Performing Arts on November 11...
Photo credit: Chaz D Photography