Women Deserve a Wittier Take on Feminism Than This Overly Faithful Musical Restaging of the Film '9 to 5'

9 to 5 The Musical

Through July 1 at Porthouse Theatre, 3143 O’Neil Rd., Cuyahoga Falls

330-672-3884. kent.edu/porthouse

"The more things change, the more they stay the same." That may be true for some aspects of our culture: The politicians change but they always lie, the Cleveland Indians' lineup changes but they always avoid a World Series championship, and so on. But it doesn't work for everything. And that's part of the problem with 9 to 5 The Musical, now at the Porthouse Theatre on the Blossom Music Center campus.

This retread of the slightly subversive 1980 feminist film comedy, which starred Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton, attempts to capture the vibe of women on the verge of independence in the workplace. Unfortunately for this well-meaning musical, many things have changed, and they haven't stayed the same in the intervening 35 years, so the old jokes don't land with the same punch.

That said, the cast under the always sure-handed direction of Terri Kent, the Porthouse producing artistic director, manages to keep things fairly lively, even during a long and challenging first act. And there are a few standout performances that make a jaunt to this outdoor venue a good idea.

We are in the offices of Consolidated Industries in the 1970s, just a decade or so after the Mad Men era, when women are meant to type, get passed over for promotions, and fetch coffee for their male overlords. We quickly meet a trio of women who each have their own aspirations.

Violet is the frustrated yet uber-competent office manager who decides to help naïve new hire Judy navigate their shark-infested white-collar waters. Meanwhile, buxom Texas gal Doralee is dealing with their boss Franklin Hart, trying desperately to keep his lecherous eyes and hands off her substantial cleavage. And the office sycophant Roz, a plain and scheming woman, only wants to cling close to her idol, the dreaded (and dreadful) Hart.

As you probably remember, a troika of the above-mentioned women plots against Hart, eventually keeping him trussed up and suspended in his home while they take over the day-to-day office business. And their progressive changes result in higher profits for the company.

These gender-defined battle lines were quite resonant and powerful back in the President Carter era. But the book by Patricia Resnick, who also co-wrote the screenplay, has lost a lot of its zip due to the strides women have made. When someone asks, "What do you call a woman who's lost 95 percent of her intelligence?" and then answers, "Divorced!" the laughter is faint and a bit uncomfortable.

And when the music and lyrics by Dolly Parton are called upon to express the women's yearning, we're left with some overly simplistic and rhyme-y thoughts ("I just might make it work/I just might make it after all/I just might rise above the hurt/Though I suffered quite a fall"). Parton's familiar title song sets a high bar at the start of the show that her other numbers can't equal.

In the central role of Violet, Amy Fritsche exudes office professionalism and sings and dances with skill, showing off her multiple performance chops. And she faces off well against Fabio Polanco as Hart, even though the talented Polanco does nothing much more than scowl, sneer and look depressed. The role of Hart has been a continuing challenge for this show in its various iterations, and the latest featured song for Hart, the up-tempo "Always a Woman," has been cut from this production. Too bad: Polanco could have nailed it.

As Doralee, Erin Diroll looks the part and does a nice job with the clever "Backwoods Barbie," even though she can't approximate the Parton pipes. In the difficult and mostly thankless role of Judy, Courtney Elizabeth Brown hangs in there but still disappears at times. Among the many supporting roles, Jess Tanner stands out as the perpetually soused Margaret, never overplaying her character's wooziness and triggering her own set of laughs.

Of course, every musical needs its showstopper moment, and that happens in the first act when Sandra Emerick as Roz kicks the stuffing out of the confessional "Heart to Hart." Stripping away Roz's dowdy persona to reveal the flaming sex kitten underneath, Emerick almost steals the whole show and runs off into the surrounding woods with it. Given that, it's unfortunate that her second song, the potentially clever "5 to 9," is nothing more than a reprise. It's a great idea: Roz crooning about the lonely hours she's not at work and next to her Hart-throb. Another great opportunity missed.

Certainly the movie 9 to 5 could be turned into a vivid and vital stage musical. But it would probably need a new composer, lyricist and writer to update the dynamics and incorporate a fresher comedic sensibility. But for now, this is the 9 to 5 we have, and the Porthouse production has enough engaging moments to keep you amused on a summer evening.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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