Music and lyrics: Dolly Parton Book: Patricia Resnick. At: Firebrand Theatre at the Den Theatre, 1329 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: $20-$45; FirebrandTheatre.org . Runs through: May 20
Here are two things about Nine to Five that have changed since its debut as a 1980 movie and reboot as a musical in 2008: Even without composer/lyricist Dolly Parton joining in, the show has never sounded better than it does in Firebrand's revival. Secondly, the nearly 40-year-old story of three women who shanghai their company from a predatory boss has become less daffy and more poignant.
In the olden days of the 1980s, scenes between CEO Franklin Hart Jr. and his secretary, Doralee, were funnylike watching the Road Runner outsmart Wile E. Coyote is funny. Sexual harassment was an occupational hazard, like catching a cold from a co-worker was. Inevitable no matter what you did. Now? Those same scenes will make you want to take a shower. And stab the so-skeevy-he-pollutes-the very-air boss in the eye with a Number 9 pencil.
The women of 9 to 5 The Musical only deploy lethal weapons ( guns, stilettos and lassos ) in their THC-induced fantasies. But they do fight back. And although their fight has an improbably happily-ever-after fairy-tale ending, it's satisfying, nonetheless.
France has brought the orchestra to the forefront for much of the production. Under music director Andra Velis Simon, the cast plays instruments along with the quintet that makes up the onstage band. Strings dominate ( Ricardo Santiago on guitar, Chel Hernandez on guitar and bass, Simon on keyboards and Sarah Weddle on percussion ), which gives the score an alternately soaring and finger-picking bluegrass sound. In triumphant numbers, including "Let Love Grow" and "Change It," the show feels like going to church should. The audience is listening to clarion calls for empowerment, delivered with raise-the-rafters vocal prowess and a jubilance that reaches the soul.
Of course, none of this would work if France's cast wasn't up to the task. If you're going to strip down the music, you need voices that can evoke the power of an orchestra. Suffice to say Hamilton is nicknamed "Slayrriese" for good reason. She brings a richly shaded lilt to Backwoods Barbie and a roar to the anthemic Joy to the Girls. As the uber-competent Violet, Anne Sheridan Smith has a Lyric Opera-worthy soprano that gets an operatic workout in "Dance of Death," and her tentative office romance with Joe ( Michael Turrentine ) will make you believe that love can indeed conquer all.
Cheated-on Judy ( Sara Reinecke ) inevitably stops the show with "Get Out and Stay Out," but Reinecke stops it, lights it on fire and then burns down the whole damn thing. ( Not literally, but it did remind me of the Molotov cocktail scene in 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. )
France has also turned the office lady villainHart's suck-up secretary Rozinto a figure who garners understanding and empathy. Veronica Garza's Roz is a woman in love who will not back down. Her declaration of love ( "Heart to Hart" ) is a combination of burlesque, torch song and uncompromising obsession. It is also one of the most hilarious things I have seen in a musicalever.
As Hart, Scott Danielson brings just enough menace to the show to balance its inherently sunny humor. He's all in, even when trussed up like a prize Berkshire pig in the 4-H Finals at the Missouri State Fair.
Here's another way Firebrand's production differs from the movie and all the previous productions that have played hereabouts: The cast looks like Chicago. And that precisely absolutely everything I have to say regarding actors' bodies and skin tones. A show that looks like Chicago and feels like now? Take that to church peopleor rather, to the box office.