Following Dolly Parton’s recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it’s only apropos that her musical 9 to 5 (based on the 1980 film) has returned in a big way to Southern California where it originally premiered in 2008. One of the best regional theatre companies in the country, Musical Theatre West, has delivered an extraordinarily cathartic take on the production about rectifying female injustices in the workplace, which can be experienced at CSU Long Beach’s Carpenter Performing Arts Center through Sunday, February 26th.
The premise centers around three office women — comprised of senior employee Violet, the initially misunderstood Doralee from Texas, and new hire Judy — who work for a misogynistic, philandering boss in Franklin Hart Jr. at a company called Consolidated Industries. The triumvirate find themselves empowered by the main commonality they share: their distaste for the demeaning Hart, whose inappropriateness incites them to literally take matters into their own hands. The musical, which is partly narrated by Dolly Parton on a video screen, is a microcosm of the challenges women have unfortunately experienced in the workplace, with splashes of satire and tongue-in-cheek comedy, to supplement laughter with the realization of how far we’ve thankfully come in the past four-plus decades.
Notably, the lines in Patricia Resnick’s script are given ample weight and time to breathe because of Cynthia Ferrer’s polished direction. None of this is possible without outstanding cast members who have not only added their own ingenuity to a vindication-driven plot, which percolates to the vicarious satisfaction of the observer, but have superbly realized Alexis Carra Girbés’ charming hustle-and-bustle choreography. And, not to mention, with Dolly’s iconic musicality on proud display, music director Wilkie Ferguson III has ensured that even the loftiest expectations of Parton’s fans will be met.
If there is a leader among the female trio, it’s Violet, who is wonderfully portrayed by Daebreon Poiema; she absolutely makes the widowed single mother role her own. Like Lily Tomlin in the film, Poiema leaves a lasting impact as an admirable woman who has been overlooked in her 15 years on the job and is still relegated to coffee duty for her ill-mannered boss. Poiema is also adept at drawing out a spectrum of emotions for her character, who goes from an employee capable of sensitivity, to a loving mother in the way she communicates with her son Josh (Brandon Dubuisson), to rightfully indignant when she is called a “girl” by Hart. Despite the earnestness — and sometimes bizarre nature — of the circumstances Violet finds herself in, Poiema knows how to add a levity that ingratiates her character to the audience even more, which culminates with the exultant “One of the Boys.”
Doralee who was, of course, depicted by Dolly in the film is actualized with great confidence by Madison Claire Parks. Although she is predominantly dressed in a pink outfit and classic Dolly blonde wig, Parks goes beyond sheer impersonation and gives her rendition of Doralee some added vim and vigor. Doralee will not abide unsavory rumors between herself and Hart, nor does she take kindly to being taken advantage of. Parks captures Doralee’s justified temper and, in lighter moments, her country-tinted allure.
Judy, who was played by Jane Fonda in the movie, is given renewed life here by Ashley Moniz. Judy is at first reserved and anxious, which manifests in suddenly doling out trivia answers. Hart’s actions, however, along with some nudging from her peers, provide the stimuli Judy needs to come into her own as a headstrong woman. Moniz effectively demonstrates this evolution of her character, which comes through as an epiphany when she gives her cheating ex-husband Dick (Chris Tuck) a talking to in Act II, followed by delivering the most powerful number in the show: “Get Out and Stay Out.” Moniz furnishes the song with a stirring emotion, complemented with triumphant notes that ring out in the auditorium.
The aggrieved female protagonists have the perfect foil in the morally corrupt Hart who is brought to loathsome life by the charismatic Edward Staudenmayer. His Hart sells the audience on how pathetic of a persona this is, whose repulsive actions — including regularly pooh-poohing any notion of fairness or equality at work and openly trying to seduce his subordinates behind the back of his wife (Missy Marion) — become the fuel Violet, Doralee, and Judy need to take agency and expose him. Hart is appropriately delineated in an over-the-top fashion by Staudenmayer whose unseemly gyrations, machismo, lack of filter, and awkwardness — especially in a scene when he leers at Parks’ Doralee — earns chuckles despite the audience’s increased desire to see him get his comeuppance.
Hart does have one advocate, though, in female employee Roz Keith who doesn’t mind being objectified by her lecherous superior; in fact, the infatuated Roz happily welcomes it. This real-world improbability lends itself to the most boisterous guffaws of the show, thanks to performer Chelle Denton who cranks the absurdity of her character — clad in red-rimmed glasses and red skirt and blazer — to eleven. Denton’s physical humor, voice inflections, and ungainliness as Roz contribute to the comedic high points in the musical, particularly during “Heart to Hart.”
The ensemble deserves significant acclaim for making it look easy in spite of being costumed in restrictive suits and business attire; needless to say, they are still able to spin with precision, swing their arms, and pass around office supplies in impeccable synchrony during the title number, “Change It,” and more. One of the standouts among the supporting cast includes Keith A. Bearden whose Joe, a financial-savvy accountant at Consolidated, is interested in the not-yet-ready-for-love-again Violet. Bearden’s Joe and Poiema’s Violet share a sweet scene and duet the underrated “Let Love Grow.” Moreover, Amelia Prochaska is memorable for her portrayal of the alcohol-addicted and disheveled Margaret, as is Michael Bullard who shines with his balletic feats. Lastly, Michael Cavinder garners the attention of onlookers by effortlessly slipping into a gamut of characters, including a detective and the bushy-haired Mr. Tinsworthy, the head honcho of Consolidated.
All in all, Musical Theatre West’s 9 to 5, the company’s first production of 2023, succeeds in being able to touch on different moods and topics, such as the audience’s nostalgia for Dolly Parton, as well as the very serious male-female inequities in the workplace and the bravery necessary to correct them. Interestingly, the musical’s feminist themes, and the assertiveness of its protagonists, are sometimes crossed with surreal developments laden with comic undertones, which constructively uses the versatile medium of musical theatre to both entertain and edify.
For more information about Musical Theatre West’s production of 9 to 5, and to purchase tickets, please visit: musical.org