The year is 1979. Gas is 86 cents a gallon, the minimum wage is $2.79, and the Walkman is all the rage. Cue Dolly Parton, who manifests on screen like a sweet-talking, otherworldly, time lord, beckoning you to be a willing accomplice on this rollicking ride, and that sets the tone for NC Theatre’s production of 9 to 5.
Based on the 1980 film of the same name, which starred Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin, the musical points a finger at office politics, sexual harassment, and inequality. So how exactly does a jokey period piece about three working women dodging and dealing with their sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot boss resonate with audiences now? It turns out, with some smart strategizing, and a lot of heart, pretty good.
First, upon entering the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, audiences will find an eye-catching display about The Women’s Rights Movement. Then, during the curtain speech opening night, Elizabeth Doran introduced herself as NC Theatre’s “female President and CEO” and reinforced the fact that the theater was founded by another strong woman, De Ann S. Jones. Finally, Producing Artistic Director Eric Woodall, who also directed this production, writes in his show notes, that he and Doran carefully approached the show with a heightened sense of awareness to lean into its humor while not making light of its subject matter. In addition, NC Theatre released another installment of its video series, All In: Community Conversations, to address the themes of the show.
With all this laser-focused messaging, the only stone left unturned in its pre-show marketing was the fact that when the casting for 9 to 5 was originally announced last August, Ashley Blanchett (Frozen) was playing the role of Judy. Blanchett left the production and is currently starring in Waitress opposite Sara Bareilles on Broadway, and Sara Jean Ford (Cats, Phantom of the Opera) stepped in just before rehearsals started.
Fortunately for North Carolina audiences, Ford is perfect in the role, and it is perhaps her character’s arc that is the most substantive part of Patrick Resnick’s cheeky book. Ford is joined by Ryah Nixon, who reprises the role of Doralee, a part she played on the national tour, and Lauren Kennedy as Violet. Ford, Nixon, and Kennedy, along with showstopper Lulu Picart as Roz, add their own brand of star quality, range, and comedic timing to the mix, which carry the show and compensate for its formulaic faults.
In addition, like most of North Carolina Theatre’s shows, the production values are strong here. This is a fast-moving show with multiple sets and costume quick changes that could easily weigh this production down. But like a well-oiled machine, the crew, choreography, and music direction, keep this train moving at full tilt.
Despite all its messaging about empowerment, sisterhood, and women’s rights, there really is nothing transformative about 9 to 5. If anything, it is a sad commentary on the fact that inequities still exist, despite all the conversations around workers’ rights, privilege, and the importance of physical and mental health and wellness in the workplace. What North Carolina Theatre’s production of 9 to 5 does do, however, is welcome audiences back to the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts with an enthusiastic Dolly-sized hug and familiar fare that is entertaining enough.
The North Carolina Theatre production of 9 to 5 runs through Sunday. For more information visit https://nctheatre.com/.
To hear what Ryah Nixon has to say about returning to the stage in 9 to 5, click here.