The Parker Arts Center’s production of 9 to 5 is a big, happy, colorful show packed with stand-out performances – all the way from the orchestra to the trio of lead women.
Given the Me Too movement, the show’s central themes of workplace fairness and sexual harassment are sadly still familiar and relevant, but the musical’s delightful exaggeration of these issues invites us to relax, laugh and take a well-deserved break from such realities.
Based on the 1980 movie starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, it features music and lyrics written by Parton. This production is co-produced by Inspire Theatre Company.
As the over-the-top sexy Doralee, Parker native Shelby Varra is arguably even more of a knockout and a natural in the part than Parton. She fairly convincingly makes the transition from Hart’s mostly agreeable, good-humored secretary to outraged co-conspirator in his eventual (and ultimately self-perpetuated) downfall.
Even more believable is the hurt her character displays when coworkers Violet (Nancy Evans Begley) and Judy (Amy Condon), initially spurn her attempts at friendship. Because all of us can understand the desire to be liked and included, Varra manages to make Doralee – whose outward appearance is too extreme and glamorous to seem relatable – into a likeable character. Rounding out Varra’s impressive performance, her singing is infused her songs with a strong country warble – enough to make Parton proud.
Parker resident Begley is also perfectly cast in the role of Violet, the head secretary and office glue. Widowed and a single mom, Violet exudes a tough and businesslike exterior that masks a wistful vulnerability. She fends off the not-entirely-unwanted attentions of junior accountant Joe (Sean Davis) and the insults of Hart, seguing into her softer maternal role in scenes with her sweetly insightful skateboarder son Josh (Axel Manica).
As the ever-capable Violet, Begley’s clearly the leader of the trio – garnering such admiration that Doralee and Judy follow her happily into the comical abyss of the musical’s second half. Begley’s strong singing voice matches her character’s personality.
As Judy, Amy Condon also gives a strong performance. Hapless and so bumbling she inspires the audience’s pity, Condon’s Judy transforms during the musical into a confident, independent woman – converting those initial sympathies along with her. Condon skillfully portrays a woman on the cusp of a divorce, desperate to find her way in not just the working world, but the life of a single woman – both foreign concepts to her character.
Bolstered by Violet – who takes Judy under her wing – and their eventual friendship with Doralee, Judy emerges from her cocoon. Condon’s second-act performance of the song “Get Out and Stay Out” – a response to her ex-husband’s bumbling attempt at a reunion – is a show highlight. It’s not just her voice that’s powerful, it’s also Condon’s presence; she exudes the confident strength of a woman who’s found solid footing and a deep sense of self.
In the role of Roz, real-life retired music teacher Michelle Jeffres is another happy highlight of this production. Displaying a remarkable blend of both vocal range and comedic chops, Jeffres portrayal of Roz prompted the biggest laughs. Jeffres is petite and intentionally portrayed as a bit frumpy and quite rigid as CEO Franklin Hart’s (Matt Wessel) dutiful secretary. And those qualities make her behind-closed-doors vamping – as she reveals her not-so-secret lust for Hart – all the more delightful. After this scene, Jeffres’ every appearance has the audience on the edge of their seats – waiting and wishing for more. Jeffres does not disappoint.
A musical with such a strong female cast would be lost without a credible bad guy, and as Hart, Highlands Ranch dad Wessel is up to the task. It doesn’t hurt that he’s tall and broad-shouldered – making him an even-more believable bully and womanizer. Wessel nicely portrays a man whose shallow confidence is sufficient to dazzle Roz, yet thoroughly exasperate the other women in the office – who have the wearisome task of maintaining job security while navigating his fragile ego.
Like his fellow cast members, Wessel successfully blends his acting and vocal talents with farcical flair – most notable in “Here for You” as he waxes poetic over Doralee’s efficient secretarial skills and impossible-to-ignore “double D’s.”
As Joe, Davis merits a shout-out as well. Somewhat of a side character in the first act, he shines as an aw-shucks-variety hero in the second half – not only as he helps uncover Hart’s accounting transgressions but more notably as he convinces the reluctant Violet that love can come around more than once in a lifetime.
Jessica Sotwick in her role as Margaret, the office lush, adds considerable weight to the show’s hefty comedic tally. Like Joe, she’s a side character during most of the show. Margaret wanders aimlessly in and out of scenes, scattering sometimes-random, sometimes-pointed, always-funny comments. She emerges stunningly transformed – as so many of the characters do – in the final scene.
While we never see them, the orchestra is also a major player in this production. The only slight negative, at least on this night, was that it occasionally drowns out the actors’ voices – an imbalance that can be easily corrected.
Last but definitely not least, the ensemble plays the vital role of adding the busy workplace atmosphere and quirky personalities so familiar to all of us who’ve ever worked a desk job. Just as in real life, the ensemble includes a great range of body types, hairstyles and fashion choices. Would that our co-workers could dance like these, however! Even when they’re not the focus of the audience’s attention, the members of this ensemble are always on, deftly reacting to the action at stage front with the appropriate – typically comical – facial expressions and body language.
If you’re looking for an upbeat way to end your work week, the PACE Center’s “9 to 5” is it. Catch it this Friday or Saturday night, or Saturday or Sunday afternoon; the show ends Oct. 13. Here’s your link for tickets. Just don’t let your boss catch you buying them at work.