Mark Ludmon reviews Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 the Musical at the Savoy Theatre in London
It is nearly 40 years since we first met Violet, Judy, Doralee and their misogynistic boss Franklin Hart Jr in the classic film 9 to 5. Times have changed but this story of three women turning on the patriarchy sadly remains just as relevant in this age of Trump and the #MeToo movement. One of the film’s creators, Patricia Resnick, adapted this modern fairytale into a musical for Broadway 11 years ago, with new songs by the original Doralee, Dolly Parton, to complement her title song. Starring Allison Janney, Stephanie J Block and Megan Hilty, this was a solid adaptation which, when I saw it in the massive Marquis Theatre in 2009, was big on talent but lacking in spirit and sparkle. Updated and reworked with a stunning, colourful new design by Tom Rogers and choreography from Lisa Stevens under director Jeff Calhoun, it has been given a rejuvenating boost that injects more of the laugh-out-loud comedy and energy that it badly needed.
The new UK production also benefits from a flawless cast. Stepping in until late March for the injured Louise Redknapp, Caroline Sheen is impressive as Violet Newstead, smart, capable and constantly passed over for promotion, while Natalie McQueen shines as Dolly Parton’s alter ego, Doralee Rhodes, funny and forthright, most notably with the catchy country song Backwards Barbie. Amber Davies puts all memories of her time on reality show Love Island behind her with a charming performance as naive Judy Bernly whose entry into the world of work catapults her into finding her identity. These three characters come together to take drastic measures when they find themselves blackmailed by the company’s sexist CEO, Franklin Hart Jnr, played with comic bravura by Brian Conley. But the show is repeatedly stolen by Bonnie Langford as Hart’s obsequious admin assistant Roz Keith who is hilarious in her devotion and unrequited passion for her boss, particularly in her high-kicking number, Heart To Hart.
Compared to the all-time hit 9 to 5, the songs remain largely forgettable despite some pleasing melodies with arrangements by Stephen Oremus, Alex Lacamoire and Mark Crossland. But they are given the best possible staging thanks to Stevens’ energetic and playful choreography and Calhoun’s tight direction which mean the show never flags.
Still set around 1980 but with knowing nods to 2019, the musical is full of crowd-pleasing messages about female empowerment and fighting toxic masculinity. Its feminist principles may feel a little dated, not least in Violet’s kick-arse big number, One of the Boys, where she dons a suit and tie in her dream of being accepted into the male world of senior management. It can also be noted that the three women start as passive agents in their rebellion, sparked by a mix-up and misunderstanding and then driven by desperation not to go to prison. But these quibbles can be ignored in what is ultimately a joyful, feelgood show that brought the predominantly female audience to its feet for a rapturous standing ovation.