Workin’ 9 to 5,
What a way to make a livin’
Barely getting’ by
It’s all takin’ and no givin’
Arlington — Some musicals feel as if they’ve been written by committee. But you’d never make that mistake with 9 to 5: The Musical at Theatre Arlington: songwriter Dolly Parton’s one-of-a-kind voice is the soundscape of this show from start to finish. We hear that voice in her driving, feet-planted music and plainspoken lyrics, of course, but also in the show’s point of view: full of common sense and comedy, and a true-hearted feeling for the lives, loves and struggles of the hard-working, put-upon American woman.
Theatre Arlington’s 46th season opener is a peppery, laugh-filled (and more than a wee bit vengeful) look at a male-dominated 1970s workplace where the women run things, but never get ahead. (Patricia Resnick wrote the script, based on the story she co-wrote for the hit 1980 movie.) But don’t be fooled into thinking this is ancient history. For sure, “the girls” of yesterdays’ office have come a long way—but nobody’s stopped giving Bad Boss awards, leastaways not that we’ve heard.
The Boss in 9 to 5 is the leering, lusting, hands-on Franklin Hart, played with an oily sense of his own charm by James Williams (memorable as the captain of the Titanic in 2017’s staging by Uptown Players and the Turtle Creek Chorale). He jokes about the ladies’ “double Ds” and “time of the month”—and lets them train the men he plans to promote. By rights, he ought to be a cartoon character—but we’ve all known guys like that. In his favor, though, the man can sing.
Playing against Hart, the show finds its feet (and its backbone) in a trio of remarkably talented female leads—one a newcomer to Texas, the others well-known for starring performances across North Texas, most especially at musical theater mecca Lyric Stage.
Daron Cockerell (Lyric’s Annie Get Your Gun and Anything Goes) is Judy, newly divorced and new on the job—her husband Dick (yes, they’ll get around to the inevitable joke) having left her for his teenage secretary. Mary Gilbreath Grim (Lyric’s Into the Woods and Ragtime, ICT Mainstage’s Bells are Ringing) is Violet, the uber-smart woman who trains up-and-coming male executives—and waits impatiently for a promotion that never comes. And Chicago transplant Kait Badalamenti, who’s been singing onstage since she was five, plays Doralee (the “Dolly” role). She’s a curvy country girl with platinum hair getting the cold shoulder from the other women, who think (mistakenly) that she’s sleeping with the boss.
Each one of this tuneful trio is a diva, perfectly capable of carrying her own show. But lucky us, we get them in a package deal, voices belting out solo spots and three-part harmonies. As a bonus, they can dance (Dawn Prejean choreographs some lively moments, with office drudges fanning their file folders into a Busby Berkeley swirl) and they’re “funny girls” too—all the while staying human and real to the audience.
Widowed Violet loves her son (Ashton Morales), is wary of new love (especially younger-guy accountant Joe, played engagingly by Jake Kelly Harris), and works hard on her dream of being “the first female CEO.” Judy is timid and unsure, but a bit of life outside her marriage opens her eyes, and lets her know she “just might make it.” And Doralee (Badalamenti is scrappy and warm) knows she’s smarter and stronger than people think when they judge her “Backwoods Barbie” look—but she gets her feelings hurt all the same.
Kudos to director (and the company’s interim head) Steven D. Morris for pulling together one of the strongest musical casts Theatre Arlington has put up in a while—and for paying special attention to the relationship between the singers onstage and the show’s four live musicians, ably led by pianist/music director Michael Plantz. Morris (and sound designer Bill Eickenloff) smartly chose to tuck the players away backstage, though linked to the live performance. The result is a lovely sense of balance and control, with singing and accompaniment coming through crystal clear.
Among the more memorable smaller roles are Jan Roeton as Roz, Hart’s snoopy and rule-obsessed longtime assistant, who yearns (in an unexpected outbreak of hoochie-coochie) for his love; TA director and UTA prof Melanie Mason as Margaret, who sneaks a “liquid lunch” into work, but blossoms under new management; and Aly Badalamenti (Kait’s sister) as Maria, in trouble for trying to prove that men in their office get higher pay for the same work. And veteran Dennis Maher brightens up the final moments as all-seeing corporate head Tinsworthy, turning up to tweak the storybook ending.
Lighting designer Bryan Stevenson smartly sticks with an institutional green for the walls of the office pool, but blazes into color for the songs—and bathes the stage in shadowy low light for the show’s “revenge” fantasies. Scenic designer Kevin Brown uses revolving panels and slide-in furnishings to keep things moving fast. Janice Pennington’s almost-the-‘80s costumes might make you wonder what’s in the “wayback” of your closet, and they do a fine job of sketching the characters: Judy’s prim pastel suit, Doralee’s tight skirt and ruffly blouses; Violet’s tailored grays are all telling. And when the ladies start to dress for success, we notice.
Dolly Parton’s lyrics aren’t fancy, but they sing really well. Her songs use simple, one-syllable words that bounce, rhyme, and get right to the point—and in 9 to 5: The Musical, she manages a neat stage trick: tickling our funnybones and taking women seriously, all at the same time.