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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

9 to 5 The Musical
Foothill Music Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Rachelle Abbey, Aaron Hurley and Glenna Murillo
Photo by David Allen
What was criticized in 2009 by Ben Brantley of The New York Times as a "gaudy, empty musical" arrives on the Foothill Music Theatre stage with some subsequent trimming of original book and songs and with a much lower-key approach in terms of big production numbers. Dolly Parton's (music and lyrics) premiere of 9 to 5 The Musical may have had a short run on Broadway; but in 2018, the trimmed, tongue-in-cheek comedy takes on new and pointed relevance, given the ongoing #MeToo movement now sweeping the entire country and even spreading around the globe.

The Foothill production reflects the current mood that women in the workplace are not going to take it any more from their chauvinistic, often abusing bosses. The musical also clearly points out what women are today saying loudly: Women are able to run the business much better than the men who too often ignore, ridicule, and/or sexually assault them on a daily basis.

Retained in this production from both the original musical and the preceding 1980 movie are plenty of examples of slapstick humor and over-the-top exaggerations of busts and buns, but the women of this production quickly rise above the stereotypes of the show's 1979 setting to show their grit, their courage, and their ability to take charge. The blonde in tight skirts and revealing blouses is not at all as dumb or loose as she at first seems; and the shy, new secretary arriving in all pink turns out not to be meek at all, once given an opportunity to act boldly. The woman who originally trained her male boss but has since been ordered daily to get him his coffee while being called a "good girl" is actually the one who turns out to know better than he how to make a buck while also how to create an office environment more humane and honoring of its employees.

While all these "truths" are present in the movie and in the original Broadway show, under Milissa Carey's direction, the stripped-down version at Foothill allows the core strength of personalities and the powerful transformations of the three starring women to be highlighted even more. The result is that the message of female empowerment that has always been in Patricia Resnick's original book and in Dolly Parton's lyrics takes more center stage with fewer distractions of over-done dance numbers and over-the-top comedic devices.

Having been dumped by her husband for a woman half his age, Judy arrives as a new hire with absolutely no obvious skills or appropriate background to be a secretary. Her frilly, lace-bordered hat, her all-pink attire, and her initial tendency to tear up turn out not to be at all who she really is—something that becomes ever clearer as Rachelle Abbey combines her singing voice and increasing swagger to display Judy's growing confidence and determination to succeed by discovering a new self not dependent on a man's domination.

The Dolly Parton imitation that Allie Townsend so skillfully and with lots of fun brings to life as Doralee at times almost seems as if the diminutive but feisty star herself has stepped off the silver screen onto this much tinier stage. The distinctive Southern twang that has a little-girl quality (but with an attitude) and the bodily assets that are Dolly trademarks as well as a singing voice that has the required country sauciness and sliding notes are all there. But, like the star herself on screen and in real life, Allie Townsend soon ensures that we understand that Doralee is not the stereotype she appears to be to her boss or her fellow workers (or probably to us)—something she defiantly asserts in "Backwoods Barbie."

Glenna Murillo brings a particularly captivating persona and set of vocals to the part of Violet, the veteran employee who is up for a promotion to management but finds out that a young, unproven guy she trained has been given the job. As she joins Judy and Doralee in their first of several trio numbers, "I Just Might," Ms. Murillo's strong, snappy, and self-assured manner of sung delivery stands out and proves to get even more impressive as more numbers are sung. When she sings "One of the Boys," Ms. Murillo is able to show that, even if a woman becomes more confident that she is in fact "beautiful, glamorous, brilliant and am'rous," she can also be the one who earns everyone else's and her own confidence as a tough-minded, skilled manager.

Backing up this strong trio is a cast who step up to shine in their own particular ways. Aaron Hurley is sleazy, despicable but (unfortunately in too many ways) also believable as the boss, Mr. Hart, who is on the make in the office in between constantly spitting out sexually insulting remarks and jokes. Adam Cotugno is the back-office accountant, Joe, who gingerly (and in his case, respectfully) keeps letting Violet know how much he likes her, with Mr. Cotugno bringing beautiful tenor vocals to bear when he finally gets to duet with Violet in "Let Love Grow." Jorge Diaz breaks his own set of pre-set stereotypes by being an understanding, supportive husband who also has the muscled looks, cocky manners, and slow drawls of a good ol' Texas cowboy. Greg Lynch is appropriately obnoxious and repulsive as Judy's two-timing ex; and Todd Wright walks on near the end with big smiles and big surprises of character as the parent company's CEO, Mr. Tinsworthy.

But, most certainly, the minor character many audience members will remember from this cast long after the final bow is Angela Cesena as Roz Keith. Looking and acting a bit like a 1979 caricature of a severe, Soviet Union bureaucrat (who happens to be a woman), Roz marches about in a drab, grey skirt and coat that matches in looks her uptight persona. As Mr. Hart's assistant, she gleefully and meanly barks commands to everyone else while doting on his every word (an adoring sentiment he, of course, ignores, given she is clearly not a former beauty queen). But when Roz is alone and lets her fantasies about Mr. Hart come to full life in "Heart to Hart" and later in "5 to 9," Ms. Cesena breaks out in both seductive voice and body twisting, leg-raising, butt-busting moves that are hilarious and win the evening's biggest laughter and applause.

The bare-bones, basic scenic design of Christopher Fitzer rotates on a somewhat slow and a bit clunky turntable but overall works just fine. Choreography by Claire Alexander breaks no new ground and is at times a bit like an aerobics class but is enthusiastically deployed by a cast that is able to make their mark in raised harmonies in the opening and finale "9 to 5" as well as in an especially winning "Around Here." Keenan Molner's lighting particularly shines during Roz's two numbers, with the enlarged shadows of her stripper-like dance accentuating the pent-up, hidden desires inside this otherwise straight-laced, controlled/controlling boss's assistant. As music director and keyboardist, Dolores Duran-Cefalu creates rousing, toe-tapping sounds out of the five-person band.

But the absolute star among this creative team is Chiara Cola, whose costumes are a fashion show of the late 1970s. Doralee's many changes of dress are particularly eye-popping and often hilarious, but they are also a reminder that outer trappings do not always mirror a person's true self.

Beyond the "9 to 5" that Dolly Parton made popular and known the world over, the numbers of the musical by the same name are mostly forgettable afterwards even if enjoyable as they are delivered. There is still much corniness in the script and its scenes, and the outward portrayals of the musical's women are open to some scorn; but Foothill's 9 to 5 The Musical goes a long way in making the musical an appropriate parody with an uplifting outcome to remind us that the serious issues of #MeToo have deep roots that need to be dug out and destroyed—just as Violet, Judy, and Doralee have done.

9 to 5 The Musicalcontinues through March 18, 2018, at Foothill Musical Theatre, Lohman Theatre, Foothill College, I-280 at El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills CA. Tickets are available online at or in person or by phone at the box office (650-949-7360) Wednesdays through Fridays, 1:00 - 5:00 p.m.