Fans of the comedy classic “9 to 5” can expect to see much of the movie in the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s production: big hair, shoulder pads, marijuana-fueled revenge fantasies and more.
But director Karen Paisley quickly found out that some of the elements that make the movie so memorable aren’t easily transferred to a small stage in a midtown warehouse.
“It’s a lot harder than you think it is; it’s got a lot more moving parts,” Paisley said. “It was never in the process where it was workshopped in a small theater before it went to a big theater. It began as a giant Broadway show (adapted from the 1980 movie). It doesn’t have to be all that; we can make it simpler and a hell of a lot easier.”
So, lacking an immense budget and large stage, this production of “9 to 5: The Musical” is a mashup of the 2009 Broadway version and a slimmed-down touring version that Paisley said is funnier than either one.
Like the movie, the show follows three female office workers who are stifled by their sexist boss. After bonding over their mutual mistreatment and undergoing marijuana-laced high jinks, they end up unwittingly taking him prisoner in his own house and taking charge of the office.
The movie starred Jane Fonda as Judy, Lily Tomlin as Violet and Dolly Parton as Doralee, and the 2009 Broadway cast was led by Allison Janney and Megan Hilty.
The MET’s actresses — Leah Swank-Miller (Violet), Hannah Freeman (Doralee) and Katie Karel (Judy) — said they were thrilled at the rare opportunity to share the stage as three leading ladies in one show.
What’s refreshing, Karel said, is that the show’s plot revolves around the women’s relationships with one another, unlike typical musical comedies in which a romance drives the show (although in a break from the movie, Violet ends up with a love interest of her own). Rather than just looking out for their own, the women end up embracing one another’s ambitions and flaws to form a united front against a common enemy.
“There’s this discord that happens between women all the time — ‘Oh, she’s doing this and that’ — and then you see these women who let their guards down and find out the truth and become best friends,” Swank-Miller said. “And that’s really the wonderful story.”
“That’s really the lesson that I think our generations are really embracing more — talking to each other and communicating and the ‘girl love,’ ” Freeman added.
While the show is staunchly feminist, it’s certainly less hard-hitting than the MET’s last musical, the Southern bigotry drama “Parade.” Paisley said the lighthearted “9 to 5” provides a bit of a break for her and her crew.
Still, she was also inspired by Parton, who wrote all of the music and lyrics for the musical (not just country-western tunes, either — expect pop and true Broadway numbers, too). In particular, she said Parton has been a true philanthropist to the kind of communities Paisley grew up in, like the smaller towns in Tennessee and Kentucky.
“So, yes, we picked ‘9 to 5’ because it is fun, and we laugh, and laughter is good,” Paisley said. “But I think I was also drawn to it because, as a woman, I truly admire Dolly Parton for her spirit, talent, her brains, kindness and courage, and because, in a tough business, she seems to have remained true to herself and never lost sight of or apologized for the impossible-to-miss fact that she is a woman.”
After all, womanhood is at the front of the show, which Karel hopes audiences will take time to think about in between their laughter.
“This show isn’t so far off from the inequality still happening today in many aspects — not just between men and women — but they happen in the workplace all the time,” Karel said. “I hope that people go away thinking a little bit about that. You can deliver this kind of news with things like humor; that makes it easy to watch, listen to and enjoy.”
“9 to 5: The Musical” runs May 11-21 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St. See metkc.org/onstage or call 816-569-3226.