Encore offers diverting, funny, and timely ‘9 to 5’
A video projection of Dolly Parton hovers over the Encore Theatre stage. The always charming country singer/songwriter plays host to Encore’s production of 9 to 5, a Broadway musical of the hit movie 1970s comedy starring Parton, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dabney Coleman.
Parton teases that what we are about to see took place in 1979, a time of disco music, no internet and less enlightened thinking.
Unfortunately, last year’s presidential campaign made it clear that issues of gender equality and sexual harassment are still alive and kicking. And 9 to still gets a lot of knowing laughter about a workplace culture skewed to male privilege.
Parton introduces Violet, Judy, and Doralee (as Parton grins, she says “You know who she is, of course”). The trio will combine their energies in a pitched battle with male chauvinist No. 1, their boss, Franklin Hart Jr.
Once again, the Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter offers an excellent cast for a diverting and sometimes hilarious romp through the swamp of office politics and the special perils and disappointments of women in the workplace. Still, 9 to 5 is not a top-tier musical. Patricia Resnick’s book is a pared down version of the film with some zippy one-liners, verbal jousting, and comic dance. Dolly Parton provides the music and lyrics. With the exception of the title song from the movie, the score isn’t memorable. Parton is a wonderful singer and gifted songwriter, but her best songs draw deeply on her life experiences and her deep understanding of honky-tonk, bluegrass, and mountain music. Here. there are hints of standard country music themes, but the sound is decidedly pop and the best pop is the song we already know. It’s serviceable, sometimes poignant, but not Dolly at her best.
Encore director Ray Frewen gets a lot from his cast to make 9 to 5 an enjoyable entertainment with a message that doesn’t overstate itself at the sacrifice of a good laugh.
Stacia Fernandez plays Violet, the serious office manager who gets regularly overlooked for promotions that always go to less competent males. Fernandez brings Broadway credentials to her performance, which combines a nice way with a quip and some sensitive moments as she ponders what an office romance might mean. She gets a big musical moment with “One of the Boys.” She sings, dances, and tears it up, showbiz style.
Thalia V. Schramm plays office newbie Judy as an innocent struggling with a new job and an impending divorce. Schramm, who often directs Encore productions, brings a big voice and a soft, sensitive demeanor to Judy, who finds friendship, courage and a little pot through her new friends. Schramm has her own big moment as she reconciles and celebrates her divorce with “Get Out and Stay Out.” Her voice soars with pent-up emotion and her face conveys all that the music intends.
Alex Koza has the difficult task of following the screen image of Parton to play Parton’s character Doralee. She succeeds with flying colors and the truest country singing voice in the cast. Her voice can take those leaps, but it can also dip to those softer places that have made Parton’s voice so special. She is also a fine comic actress as the buxom object of the boss’ most fervent, if temporary, lustful pursuit.
Ernest William is a guest artist from Las Vegas with extensive stage experience and he is a real smoothie as the shameless Franklin Hart Jr. He oozes insincerity and flaunts his masculinity as he woos Doralee, the latest is a long list of attempted conquests. His musical and comic talents are on full display with his drooling performance of “Here for You,” which is an ironic title, of course.
Comic honors go to Sarah Briggs, who draws the biggest laughs of the night as Hart’s devoted, love addled assistant Roz. Briggs is a gifted comic actress with the malleable face and loose- limbed body movements of a Carol Burnett and a fine sense of comic timing that brings it all together. She stops the show with a love-struck song of eternal devotion on “Heart to Hart” and does it again in Act 2 on “5 to 9.” Her Roz is hilariously pathetic throughout.
In a small but sweet role, Sebastian Gerstner plays Joe, who has his own longing for Violet. Gerstner brings a lot of heart and realism to his role.
The comic kidnapping, the crazy turn of events and the arrival of the big boss Tinsworthy, well played by an amused Tim Brayman, have been brought over by Resnick from her original screen story.
Sarah Tanner’s set is functional and the use of moving walls makes it flexible. Unfortunately, the Encore stage is small and the area for dance is made smaller by two raised side sets. The stage gets crowded and the choreography sometimes gets a bit ragged. The opening sequence that dances the lyric to “9 to 5” is nicely done. Choreographer Meredith Steinke does well with the limitations, especially on the opening and “One of the Boys,” but a show like this needs more room.
Anyone who has worked in an oppressive work environment will understand the nerve that the movie struck. The musical still resonates and plays to the fantasies of office workers everywhere. As Dolly told us long ago, “They just use your mind and never give you credit/It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.”
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
“9 to 5” continues at the Encore Musical Theatre, 3126 Broad St., Dexter, at 7 pm Thursdays, 8 pm Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 pm Saturdays and Sundays through August 27. For information, go to theencoretheatre.org.