Porthouse Theatre’s ‘9 to 5’ undermines as it entertains
By Bob Abelman
It is easy to understand why the 1980 film “9 to 5” was so popular.
Featuring three corporate female employees who were tired of hitting their heads on the low-hanging glass ceiling, the comedy tapped frustrations still felt by women in the years following the fledgling modern feminist movement. It offered the fantasy solution of a hostile takeover of the company’s “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” boss by way of female ingenuity and newly found sisterhood.
It also starred actors Lily Tomlin as Violet, Dolly Parton as Doralee and Jane Fonda as Judy.
It is disconcerting that the film was turned into a blatantly formulaic, eager-to-please Broadway musical in 2009, with a bloated book by Patricia Resnick and pop songs by Dolly Parton that generate an abundance of gimmicky and often lumbering production numbers.
Worse, the same year that the Broadway stage depicted undervalued office manager Violet losing promotions to under-qualified men, curvaceous southern-fried secretary Doralee being helplessly ogled and groped by CEO Franklin Hart, Jr., and the newly divorced secretary, Judy, searching for self-confidence, Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State, five women won Nobel prizes for medicine, literature, economics and chemistry, and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan found American servicewomen leading raids, manning tank gunners and engaging the enemy on the front line.
If the movie felt like an artifact of the 1970s, “9 to 5: The Musical” comes across as an incidental self-parody – a work so woefully out of touch with its time that it must be making fun of the 1970s or itself. But it isn’t.
Its comedic portrayal of the sexism and sexual harassment facing women in the workplace undermine their real-world significance then and now. And its tasteless laughs at the expense of the alcoholism that plagues one of the other secretaries is appalling.
Not surprisingly, the show lasted a mere five months on Broadway.
So it is disheartening that Porthouse Theatre has resurrected this tunefully upbeat but brain-dead and out-of-step musical to kick off its 2017 season.
To her credit, director Terri Kent attempts to sugarcoat all that is egregious by staging this musical as if it were harebrained and harmless live-action animation.
The caricature that is the villainous CEO Franklin Hart, Jr. is so broadly drawn by the gifted Fabio Polanco that he seems cartoonish, as if steam might spew from his ears and his red head would explode when angry, which is often. If it weren’t for the toxicity of what passes as humorous banter, Polanco’s portrayal would be a hoot.
The same goes for the wonderful Sandra Emerick as Hart’s administrative assistant, Roz, who literally strips away her tightly buttoned-up demeanor to reveal her lust for her boss and let loose her inner Jessica Rabbit during the rousing “Heart to Hart.”
The talented ensemble’s manner is similarly cartoonish, playing everything with excessive enthusiasm and to the back of the house, and executing Kelly Meneer’s standard issue musical theater choreography as if they were loving it.
While Amy Fritsche, Erin Diroll and Courtney Elizabeth Brown are excellent as Violet, Doralee and Judy, respectively – possessing tremendous voices and incredible stage presence – they are given too much responsibility for the plot’s progression to forego authenticity to help offset the show’s implicit offensiveness.
As a result, Doralee’s cutesy, character-defining “Backwoods Barbie,” while beautifully sung by Diroll, leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
When Violet imagines herself as a corporate executive in the musical number “One of the Boys,” actor Fritsche strips down to short-shorts while her male counterparts are in business suits, which is insulting and dumbfounding.
And Judy’s anthem of empowerment, “Get Out and Stay Out,” is so outdated that the blatant invitation to boldly applaud girl-power at its conclusion is merely met by the rote response of polite clapping for Brown’s fine performance.
All this is supported by a wonderful 12-piece orchestra under Jennifer Korecki’s direction, which makes the mediocre score soar, and takes place in front of Terry Martin’s permanent set that embraces a 1970s-inspired color scheme and consists of multiple doors through which enthusiastic ensemble members speedily transport furnishings on wheels between the show’s short scenes.
This production is very well presented. It’s the work itself that is problematic. If you go, leave your brain and every progressive bone in your body at the door. CV
WHERE: Porthouse Theatre, 3143 O’Neil Rd., Cuyahoga Falls
WHEN: Through July 1
TICKETS & INFO: $22 – $40, call 330-672-3884 or visit porthousetheatre.com
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 18, 2017.
Lead image: From left, Fabio Polanco as Franklin Hart, Jr., Erin Diroll as Doralee, Amy Fritsche as Violet, and Courtney Elizabeth Brown as Judy. Photo | Paul Silla