What a way to make a musical: '9 to 5' at Music Theatre Wichita

Strong vocals and choreography make for a diverting theater experience, despite a somewhat dated book. The show runs through Sunday at Century II.

What a way to make a musical: '9 to 5' at Music Theatre Wichita
Amanda Lea LaVergne, Soara-Joye Ross, and Kathryn Adeline play three 70s-era coworkers who take matters into their own hands in "9 to 5." Courtesy photo by Kacy Meineke

Dolly Parton’s empire makes a brief local appearance this weekend, thanks to Music Theatre Wichita’s solid production of  “9 to 5.” With music and lyrics written by Dolly herself, it’s sure to satisfy both the feverish fan and casual admirer. 

Of course, the musical is based on the 1980 comedy classic starring Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Parton as three put-upon coworkers. While the stage version evokes the fun of the original, it also carries a few of its flaws onto the stage. 

Eric Sciotto directs and choreographed this production (with Associate Choreographer Samm Hewes), and Thomas W. Douglas serves as music director (with Associate Music Director Chuck Koslowske). Patricia Resnick, who co-wrote the film, adapted its script for the stage.  

Violet Newstead (Soara-Joye Ross), is the 16-year veteran saddled with training inexperienced newcomer Judy Bernly (Amanda Lea LaVergne). These roles are played in the movie by Tomlin and Fonda, respectively. One of the first things we (and Judy) learn is that we don't like Doralee Rhodes (Parton’s role, played by Kathryn Adeline). Her perky personality and even perkier physique but mostly because she is a favorite of the unscrupulous boss Franklin Hart Jr. (Matt Allen). The story takes us through the burgeoning relationship of these three women as they form a bond of hatred toward their lecherous boss, and then proceed to take a fanciful revenge by kidnapping him and taking over the company for the better. 

Local actor Injoy Fountain plays the personal assistant to the big bad boss. Courtesy photo by Kacy Meineke

Local favorite Injoy Fountain portrays Roz Keith, the unsavory personal assistant to the boss. Fountain makes her lovable enough for us to feel some empathy for the position she maintains. Allen as Franklin Hart Jr. layers enough character and style to make the disgusting boss a tad more palatable. Broadway veteran LaVergne as Judy walks a fine line, performing the heightened caricature written on the page while grounding the character in reality. Soara-Joye Ross sings the role better than the original Broadway Violet, Allison Janney, but struggles with the book, often tripping through dialogue. Because of that, she doesn’t always connect with her fellow cast members, most notably with love interest Joe, played by Eddie Andrews. 

Ultimately, this show feels like a star vehicle for Parton herself, who never appears (except for in pre-recorded videos that bookend the show). This leaves Kathryn Adeline with a large pair of shoes to fill. She does more than play Doralee Rhodes, but instead plays Parton playing Doralee Rhodes. And she nails it. She is stunning in every way, and we are lucky she is making her professional debut in Wichita.

In her professional debut, Kathryn Adeline more than holds her own as she acts alongside Broadway veterans. Courtesy photo by Kacy Meineke

The first number, “9 to 5,” is one of Parton’s greatest hits, but her style is also evident in “Backwoods Barbie,” which was lifted from her canon and inserted into the musical. “Here for You,” sung by Franklin Hart Jr. and the “Boy’s Club,” made me a bit uncomfortable. It’s a reminder of the appalling sexual harassment rampant in the 1970s — but still present in many workplaces today. That makes the topic poor grist for a laugh. The end of Act 1 bogs down with a three-song sequence as the heroines reenact their pot-induced revenge fantasies. The numbers are fun and show off the talent of the young ensemble, but by the time we get through all three the audience is  collectively pushing for the end of the first act. Intermission comes at the 90 minute mark, which follows a 20-minute curtain speech. 

The good news is Act 2 hustles. “One of the Boys” is visually interesting, but I don’t imagine many women wish to be “one of the boys” as much as they wish some of the boys to get out of the way to make room for more capable replacements. This sentiment is better celebrated later in the act when Judy tells off her ex-husband, another motif we get in carbon triplicate, and then lifts the roof with “Get Out and Stay Out.” It might be the most impressive number of the show, and another reminder why you shelled out for a ticket. 

Amanda Lea LaVergne is in possession of one of the standout voices in this production. Courtesy photo by Kacy Meineke

Scenic designer Robert A. Kovach provides us with beautiful interior paint jobs and effective moving furniture pieces, but the big reveal after a front-of-curtain scene rarely impresses. The program doesn’t note a specific projection designer, but here they serve one or two legitimate functions and then fill up empty space and often distract. Costumes, designed by Shannon Smith-Regnier, set the era without commenting on it, as do Kaite Crandall’s hair and makeup. They both have their fun during the more imaginative musical numbers, but I didn’t realize how distracting Doralee’s act one wig was until the beginning of Act 2 when she re-enters in a much-improved look. The biggest spectacle of the show, however, is easily the choreography. The youthful ensemble is a delight to watch. Sciotto’s choreography owes a tip of the cap to legend Michael Kidd, whose original dance brought a strong, grounded feel to the largely ballet-influenced style. This is the only place in Wichita where you will see as many musical theater dancers of this caliber on the same stage, and it’s a joy to watch.

The dance numbers are highlights of MTW's production of "9 to 5." Courtesy photo by Kacy Meineke.

A friend recently confided in me that she doesn’t want to go to the theater to think — she wants to have a good time. To escape the world, not examine it. On opening night, the audience embraced the diversion. In addition to top-tier dance numbers, a superb orchestra supports big Broadway voices. “9 to 5” knows what kind of musical it is, and it works.  

The Details

“9 to 5”
Showing through June 16 at Century II, 225 W. Douglas Ave. in Wichita. (Enter on the east side of the building.)
Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday. Snack food and drinks are available for purchase before and during intermission.
$37 to $81 plus fees when purchased online. Call 316-265-3107 to order by phone.

Leslie Coates is a theatre faculty member at Butler Community College and has acting and directing credits from San Diego to New England. He is a former board member for Forum Theatre Company where he also appeared in Christmas Letters, Pump Boys and Dinettes, and various Words and Music performances. 

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