Review: 9 TO 5 at Firebrand Theatre

Review: 9 TO 5 at Firebrand Theatre

(front, l to r) Sharriese Hamilton, Veronica Garza, Tyler Symone, Michael Turrentine, Khaki Pixley, Scott Danielson and Alyssa Soto with (back, l to r) Royen Kent, Elizabeth Morgan and Ted Kitterman. Photo by Emily Schwartz.

By Elizabeth Ellis

All of us hold certain performers in a certain high esteem. We’ll go see any film in which they’re featured, listen to any song they record, or catch any interview where they speak about their work. It’s a combination of both respect for their artistic output as well as for them as people. One of those performers for me is Dolly Parton. She’s special to me, not just because of her abilities as a musician, singer, composer, and actor, but her example as a humanitarian. For these reasons, I was really looking forward to Firebrand Theatre’s production of 9 TO 5 THE MUSICAL at The Den, and Firebrand did not disappoint.

While the basic plot taken from the 1980 film is a little thin to translate into a full musical, the exceptionally gifted cast (several doubling as musicians) paired with tight and smart direction from Firebrand’s artistic director, Harmony France, make 9 TO 5 THE MUSICAL a fun and exuberant production that moves far past the cliches of the cinematic version.

In case you aren’t up on your seminal feminist cinematic moments: The time is 1979, the place is the local office of the gigantic multinational corporation, Consolidated. Three secretaries (Doralee, Violet, and Judy) guide us through the frustration and drudgery of working at such a soulless institution. Texas native Doralee (the adorable and versatile Sharriese Hamilton) is all perkiness and efficiency, but is shunned by the other women for her perceived affair with the CEO. The feminist-in-the-making single mom, Violet (the strong and funny Anne Sheridan Smith), could successfully run Consolidated but is passed over again and again because of her gender. Newbie Judy (the earnest and lovely Sara Reinecke), fresh from a split with her cheating husband, faces the working world for the first time. Mr. Hart (the wonderfully lewd and leering Scott Danielson) is the nasty grand poobah who treats the women employees like his personal cat toys, and instills fear of job loss in all his staff. When Violet, Dorralee, and Judy discover evidence of Hart’s financial wrongdoings, they trap him, engage in some corporate shibari, kidnap him, and secure him in his own home. The trio subsequently take over the office, enact more employee-friendly policies, and make Consolidated a fabulous success.

The three main women each have a show-stopping song: Hamilton’s “Backwoods Barbie,” Smith’s “Pin-up Girl,” and Reinecke’s “Get Out and Stay Out” all showcase these women’s superb voices. Veronica Garza, as Hart’s toady assistant Roz, shows brilliant comic timing and interpretation to accompany her thrilling voice in “Hart to Hart.” The rest of the cast give excellent performances as a variety of characters.

While the book by Patricia Resnick comes across as uninspired, it’s understandable given the limitations of the original. The characters tend towards one-dimensional and simple, but we still cheer for them, especially the three protagonists. The music and lyrics by Dolly herself are fresh, varied, funny, and stick happily in your mind. France gave herself a difficult task: provide a 21st-century take on an adaptation of a beloved-yet-dated film. France presents this piece with honesty, not with cynicism, and doesn’t flinch from some of the more groan-worthy storylines. As much as #metoo has brought to light countless instances of odious behavior, France shows that women still have a long road ahead, filled with sexist bumps along the way (and adds a few present-day touches, as demonstrated by Hart’s handshakes, which oddly mirror those of our present President). Choreographer Kasey Alfonso uses the narrow first-floor space at The Den beautifully, and music director Andra Velis Simon wisely utilizes some of the depth of Chicago’s talent pool, steering the terrific actors and musicians in the band towards a more bluegrass and folk feel than the original orchestrations.

In some ways, I had hoped this production of 9 TO 5 would be able to provide some sort of watershed moment in musical theater, and give the audience more to think about as far as the women’s movement and sexual harassment of women in the workplace and beyond. It can’t, not to the extent that most of us would want. However, the stellar talent onstage and Dolly’s consistently superb music contribute to make this show both a reminder of where we’ve been and what we can still achieve.

9 TO 5 plays through May 20 at the Den. More info at firebrandtheatre.org.

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.

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