REVIEW: Encore Theatre’s ‘9 to 5: The Musical’ labors with thin story

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Alex Koza, Stacia Fernandez, and Thalia Schramm in Encore Theatre’s production of “9 to 5: The Musical.” (Photo by Michele Anliker Photography)

I thought that my un(der)employed status might make “9 to 5: The Musical” – which concluded its run at Dexter’s Encore Theatre on Sunday, August 27 – a double-edged sword: it would likely remind me of the workplace collegiality I miss, but also the office politics that I don’t.

Yet for me to have this response, the 2009 stage adaptation of the 1980 hit movie (starring Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, and Jane Fonda) would have to present an office culture and characters that felt, for a couple of hours at least, palpably real. But there’s ultimately not enough meat on the show’s bones to achieve that effect.

“9 to 5: The Musical” largely stays quite faithful to its original source material. Timid and broken Judy (Thalia Schramm) gets a job in the office pool when her husband Dick (Daniel Helmer) runs off with his own young secretary; Doralee (Alex Koza), a happily married blond bombshell, gets harassed daily by the unapologetically sexist boss Mr. Hart (Ernest William); and a highly capable widow named Violet (Stacia Fernandez) keeps getting passed over for promotions because she’s a woman. One evening, the three women bond over a joint, so later, when Violet believes she may have accidentally put rat poison in Mr. Hart’s coffee, she turns to her new friends for help. The poison turns out to be a false alarm, but when Hart tries to blackmail Doralee for sexual favors, the trio kidnap him and keep him hostage in his own house while they re-make the office in their own image.

The logistics and nature of this sustained detention, by the way, raised some pretty distracting questions for me, which pulled me out of the story now and then. For although the show is meant to be cartoonish, its real world setting means that the narrative must take that context, and its rules and rhythms, into account.

Patricia Resnick’s book retains many of the movie’s memorable punchlines – which stands to reason, since she’d previously co-written the original screenplay – and Dolly Parton adds several songs beyond her title smash hit. But the additional tunes, polished though they may be, don’t do enough narrative work, nor do they all earn their place in the show. For instance, the women’s pot-induced fantasies about how they’d each individually punish Mr. Hart provide the material for three entire numbers, which bog down the show’s already-stilted pacing.

Plus, the characters never get the chance to venture too far beyond reductive types. Hart – played with wolfish zeal by William – is a straight-up caricature. And regarding the women, there’s the jilted good wife; the sexpot; the driven, criminally overlooked brains of the outfit; and the suck-up with a crush on the boss (Roz, brilliantly sent up by Sarah Briggs). Yes, they each get a couple of numbers to reveal more about their respective identities, but nothing we find out about them subverts the type or surprises us; consequently, they’re rendered less human, and we ever get too emotionally invested in them.

Encore audiences likely came close despite themselves, though, thanks to some terrific performances, teased out by director Ray Frewen. Briggs’ no-holds-barred ode to lust, “Heart to Hart,” maximizes the actress’ talent for exaggerated, hilarious expressions, and define her as the show’s comedic scene stealer; Violet, Doralee, and Judy’s anthem for action, “Change It,” lands just the right, spunky punch; and “Get Out and Stay Out” – Judy’s roof-popping belter aimed at her ex – offered the show’s vocal and emotional highlight at Encore.

R. MacKenzie Lewis’ music direction is, as always, sound, while Daniel C. Walker’s lighting design helps highlight the show’s fanciful, farcical elements; Sarah Tanner’s set employed a brownish palette – complete with a single trio of colored stripes that curve along the wall – to give the space a 70s vibe; rolling desks and set pieces allow the center to shift from an office to a domestic setting, while a copy/break room and Mr. Hart’s office flank the main space. Sharon Larkey Urick worked within the era’s professional wardrobe conventions while also conveying each person’s personality, and Meredith Steinke wisely eschewed pushing the obvious (i.e., disco) too hard in her choreography.

Encore’s strongest numbers in “9 to 5” tantalizingly offered moments of emotional heft and joy within an otherwise flat blueprint. Otherwise – like the looming video segments starring Parton herself, who provides occasional narration and an epilogue – “9 to 5” feels frustratingly, distantly two dimensional.

(“9 to 5: The Musical” closed at Dexter’s Encore Theatre on August 27th, which is when I saw it; the Encore’s next show is “Sweeney Todd.” Look for a review of that to happen much earlier in the run! Second, in the future, when I self-publish a review of an ongoing show that’s exclusive to A2ArtsAddict, I will include an optional “pay” button, for those who wish to support my efforts to keep professional local theater criticism alive. Thanks for reading/visiting!)

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