By Barry Reszel
Thirty seven years before #MeToo, there was 9 to 5.
Dolly Parton and Patricia Resnick‘s highly successful 1980 Hollywood film featuring Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as secretaries taking down their misogynistic boss is among the first mass media presentations to highlight sexual harassment at work. But then it somehow took another 28 years for the film to be made into a moderately well-received musical.
Change is slow.
Now nearly another decade later, despite some glorious music and lyrics by Parton, and acknowledging the story as a flashback set in the late 1970s, the chief nit with 9 to 5, the musical, is that current politics and movements mean that Time’s Up on considering the mistreatment of women as a necessary backstory in a farcical caper plot.
Indeed Parton, et al., seem to agree; she admitted in March to the early development plans for a remake, which she says, “started to really make sense now, amid the national conversation around harassment and equal pay for women.” (See link here.)
Love you Dolly, but really, it made sense long before now. (Those in need of a refresher may read a synopsis of the plot and see the full production history of this musical here.)
So, what’s an artistic director of the self-proclaimed “only known feminist theatre company” to do?
Well, when you’re Firebrand Theatre’s Harmony France, you take the job yourself, even if it means directing your first-ever musical production. And then, as a veteran musical performer, you do what matters most—cast the show with a bevy of powerhouse vocalists and surround them with talented musicians who, under the baton of Music Director Andra Velis Simon, layer in a high caliber hootenanny feel to the wonderful country score.
From the director’s own mouth…er laptop: “I’ve had this vision of this show in my brain for 2 years, but I didn’t know I was going to be the director. I was shopping it to a couple of directors, going on and on about how it could be stripped down and be super funny without laughing at the objectification of women and how I wanted to build the cast around Sharriese Hamilton (Doralee) and how I wanted to add bluegrass instruments to give it that Dollywood feel….
“This show pushed me past my limits. I learned about the parts of this that don’t come naturally to me and was super surprised by the things that really do. But the thing that I didn’t expect was the unwavering trust that my actors have had in me. I don’t know what I have done to deserve that trust. Some of the most talented people in this city felt safe in my untested hands. The other thing that I didn’t expect was to have a team of people that shined where I lacked. A team that I am proud to call friends and colleagues.”
Ah yes…as another powerful woman once said, “It takes a village.”
And that is what Firebrand’s 9 to 5 illustrates most. While certainly led by the vocal prowess of Hamilton and co-stars Anne Sheridan Smith (Violet) and Sara Reinecke (Judy), Veronica Garza as rule-driven Roz and Scott Danielson as sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical, bigot Hart are just two more of the talented village members of a cast that shines like the sun.
To these well-deserved plaudits, add Tyler Symone as this website’s newest recipient of the “Konstantin Stanislavski No Small Parts Award,” given periodically to an ensemble member whose radiating performance is memorable long after the final bows are taken. Symone is the energetic symbol of a tight ensemble, whose choral and dance work (choreographed by Kasey Alfonso) make a patron’s trek to the Den Theatre a most enjoyable experience. There’s no doubt this young actor has many larger parts in her future.
Inherent issues with a movie-made-stage musical on top of this particular script’s rather dated stereotypes put great pressure on the 9 to 5 songbook and the performance of it. Here’s where Firebrand’s village truly delivers…and then some. With several cast members seamlessly moving from choral/dance number to picking up a stringed instrument and joining the band, the music is a true delight. Highlights include the all-cast title song (x 2), the lead trio’s “I Just Might,” Hamilton’s spin on “Backwoods Barbie,” Garza’s “Hart to Hart,” Smith’s “One of the Boys,” Reinecke’s empowering “Get Out and Stay Out,” and the melodic, anthemic trio that closes the first act, “Shine Like the Sun.”
It’s important the music is stellar, because the production is hampered somewhat by the space in which it’s staged The Den’s long, rectangular Bookspan Theatre is set with a raised platform that represents the upstairs executive office and includes a rather precarious staircase from the platform to the large stage floor, with seating directly stage left and at center. It’s an odd setup that combines with a plethora of hard surfaces (including brick walls) to seriously challenge the best of sound engineers, particularly during the office scenes. And another personal nit—Costume Designer Virginia Varland needs a little more budget because the three leads, at least, need a couple of costume changes to carry off a plot that spans several days.
That said, there’s a bold element of the stage decorating (kudos to Scenic Designer Eleanor Kahn) that elicits some of the gravitas toward the subject matter that France is trying to achieve. The large, framed 17th century oil painting of the abduction, carrying away or rape of Persephone (depending on the art scholar), painted by an unknown artist (pictured here), is a prominent element behind the desk of the skeevy Mr. Hart until it’s replaced in Act Two by a more-suitable-for-the-office geometric canvas.
It’s a subtle statement that speaks loudly…and it’s backed up by some the of the best vocals in town.
Firebrand Theatre presents “9 to 5” through May 20 at The Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.