Arts & Culture

Colorful ‘9 to 5’ celebrates female empowerment

Dolly Parton’s stage musical of “9 to 5” will probably never become a classic in the “Oklahoma!” or “My Fair Lady” vein because the music, while absolutely pleasant and serviceable, isn’t particularly memorable after the curtain comes down.

To be sure, Parton has written a couple of numbers that linger longer than the others, particularly the poignant ballad “I Just Might” with women musing about taking control of their lives and careers in a male-dominated world, and the romantic “Let Love Grow” reaffirmed between a husband and wife.

But neither of them quite has the clever, insistent, involving impact of Parton’s bouncy title tune, a holdover from the 1980 movie comedy that inspired this 2009 Broadway musical. The closest thing to a show-stopper is “One of the Boys,” a big fantasy production number with a neglected, overlooked Girl Friday suddenly swinging out as CEO in glamorous white sequined suit with red vest, backed by a chorus line of guys in snappy three-piece suits.

“9 to 5” is one of two new shows Music Theatre of Wichita is debuting this 41st season (along with “Legally Blonde” in August), and it’s a saltier romp than most local audiences are used to. It’s not offensive, but it has some adult elements in language, marijuana references and sexuality that may give pause.

In any case, director Mark Madama (who also just directed “Fiddler on the Roof”) whips up a colorful, sprawling, dance-heavy show that celebrates female empowerment as seen through the eyes of three rebellious secretaries in 1979. After the gravitas of “Fiddler,” Madama shows his fun side by playing this show big and broad and just over the top without becoming ridiculous.

Paula Leggett Chase is a powerhouse as Violet, the overworked veteran who has grown cynical as she watches the men she trains be promoted over her. Chase has a terrific voice for her numbers. She also has an efficient, take-charge, wryly engaging presence.

Jenni Barber, a former Music Theatre ensemble member back for her first guest role, is a perky, twangy delight as Doralee (played by Parton in the movie), a country gal who knows that her blond and frilly looks cause her to be considered only a ditz. Barber is true to the expected Parton image — and sound — but gives Doralee a bit more of an edge with her plain-spoken observations (which tickle audiences with their outrageousness).

Darcie Roberts, another Broadway veteran who got her start at Music Theatre, plays Judy, a mousy and desperate divorcee thrust into the corporate world to make a living after her husband leaves her for his 19-year-old secretary. Roberts blossoms the most from dishrag to dynamo, and her “Get Out and Stay Out” ultimatum becomes an anthem for all wronged women.

But the three wouldn’t have been quite so lovable and admirable without Damon Kirsche as their awful boss, Franklin Hart Jr., an oily weasel who delights in demeaning, berating, slandering and generally acting like an overprivileged jerk. Kirsche has enormous fun with this campy, cartoony role. He is deliciously despicable. And his Juilliard-trained voice makes his leering “Here for You” sound better than it really is.

Wichita favorite Karen Robu is dynamite in a minor role as a longtime employee who is secretly in love with the awful boss. Her “Heart to Hart” lament is both hilarious and surprisingly poignant.

Choreography by the husband-wife team of Lyndy Franklin Smith and Jeromy Smith is inventive, energetic and surprisingly athletic, with back flips thrown in for punctuation. The costumes by Wichita State University alum Shannon Smith subtly underscore the progression of the women from drab to pastel to vibrant as they gradually find their empowerment.

The show actually is multimedia with tapes of the real Parton introducing the show and characters (sort of a lazy way to set the scene), then coming back to join the live cast members for the finale. It’s a contractual condition of doing the show, but it upstages the real people who are performing in the shadow of a celebrity who’s not really there.

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