The opener of Lucky Penny’s 2019-2020 season, Dolly Parton’s musical “9 to 5,” is a rip-roaring, foot-tapping, knee-slapping good time. If the verve of the actors, the ingenuity of the sets and the quality of the costumes are any indication of what Taylor Bartolucci and Barry Martin have in store for their 2019-2020 season, we are in for one heck of a good time.
When you go, the first thing you’ll notice is the stage. The stage is composed of panels of faux marble that are reminiscent of the cold stone walls of many a Manhattan office building in the 1980s. When the house lights went down, and the stage lights came up, the unmistakable bass line of Parton’s song “9 to 5” began, played by a live band in the wings. The audience whooped and clapped, as that driving beat and the jaunty lyrics are so catchy, so enthusiastic.
Then the women’s ensemble came out, dressed, head to toe, in authentic 1980s garb: silk blouses and wool skirts in neon yellow and royal blue with shoulder pads and bows, tied at the neck. The costumes themselves are a tour de force whose sheer volume and variety dumbfounded me: where did they find all this, and how did they get clothing that fit the cast so well?
Their attention to detail was amazing. Not only were the costumes period, but the office equipment was too: typewriters with ribbons, adding machines with coils of paper and those old corded phones. In fact, the psychological crux of the play hinges on the existence of a coiled phone cord used as a restraint. Such a thing is now only a figment of the millennial imagination.
Lucky Penny’s Artistic Director Taylor Bartolucci plays the lead, Violet, a no-nonsense single mother who is a supervisor in the secretarial pool. Violet works with Doralee, who corresponds to Parton’s character in the movie, played by Jenny Angell in a huge blonde wig. The part of Judy, a demure, newly divorced wilted flower, is played by Kirstin Pieschke.
While they are all different, they make a balanced threesome, office drone Musketeers who do battle against Edward Hightower’s brilliant portrayal of Franklin Hart Jr., an arrogant, smarmy, evil, bureaucrat.
The plot of “9 to 5” may not be familiar to anyone younger than 50. Indeed, the movie version came out in 1980. I was but 2 years old. I know it only because I saw the movie later, probably in 1994, on VHS. I most likely sought it out because it made such a serious cultural impression. Since it expressed what so many people were thinking but were unable to articulate, it became a permanent fixture in our modern collective cultural milieu.
That being said, it’s not complicated. Doralee, Violet and Judy are all secretaries working for Consolidated, Inc. Their boss, Franklin Hart, uses them, abuses them, harasses them and humiliates them. They figure out a way to get back at him that involves tying him up in his house and impersonating him at work.
Whatever Consolidated, Inc. produces or does is never mentioned. This omission is, itself, as much a comment on the nature of life in the corporate world as the plot surrounding sexism and harassment.
There are so many juicy, perfect moments, I can’t list them all. The pot-fueled fantasy on which the action turns, where Doralee, Judy and Violet imagine scenarios where they murder their boss in different film genres is hilarious.
Judy’s is a film noir, Doralee’s is a spaghetti Western and Violet’s Snow White poisons him with a tainted cup of coffee. The scene within a scene is not only a brilliant aspect of the mechanics of the Patricia Resnick’s play, but under Dyan McBride’s direction, its pure magic.
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I loved it that Parton infused her own folksy cleverness into the play. As part of the production, she comes over the loudspeaker to introduce the show, and says that it takes place during a time when blackberries and apples were something she picked behind the barn.
Then, when the girls...ahem—women—get stoned, Judy ends up squeezing Doralee’s boobs.
“Are these real?” Judy asks.
“As real as my hair is,” Doralee replies. Dolly Parton has revealed a secret.
When Pauline Kael, the New Yorker’s film critic from 1967 to 1991, reviewed “9 to 5” the movie, she commented on Doralee’s line about shooting Franklin Hart in such a way that she would change him “from a rooster to a hen in one shot.” Kael made of point of saying that you can’t change a rooster to a hen by castrating him. A castrated rooster is called a capon, and they are castrated because it improves the taste of their meat. They don’t become female.
If you can put aside Kael’s superior, pretentious tone — something in which she takes glee — you will see that this line leads to an interesting idea. In a fantastical sense, if Franklin Hart or so many other men—Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein or Jeffrey Epstein—were transformed from a rooster to a hen, and been the subject of their abuse rather than the perpetrator of it, they would collapse and wither away at the humiliation. They simply wouldn’t be able to handle it and would wonder why women didn’t rise up and revolt against the injustice and distaste.
Well, if you read the news, or are at all aware of the moment women are having right now, there is no more appropriate play for Lucky Penny to open its season with. In fact, “9 to 5” is now the hottest ticket in London’s West End. The show was supposed to close in early September, but on September Fifth—9/5, get it?—they announced that they would prolong the show until April of 2020. Lucky Penny’s show certainly deserves an extended run.
The best part of a show at Lucky Penny are the little details. Take for example, the 1980s steel time clock they installed by the door to the theater. And next to that,is a time card rack on the wall, with the cards labeled with each character’s name.
Also, on a table in the lobby was a display with a clipboard on which was an “Office Memorandum,” the predecessor of today’s email, from Roz Keith, the office manager at Consolidated, which severely restricts the personal decor employees can have on their desks. Things like this so thoughtfully added give the experience a rich ambiance. It’s like a kaleidoscopic tapestry that only gets more interesting the longer you look at it.
When I left the theater, I felt intoxicated with the actors’ joie de vivre, a contagious, infectious, viral sense of euphoria. In the partaking of Bartolucci and Martin’s live theater, I am nourished with an exquisite elixir, the likes of which there are many reasonable facsimiles—available on iPads or laptops and in theaters—but nothing can beat Lucky Penny’s quality live theater, the depth of which is unmistakably precious.