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What a way to make a living! “9 to 5” marks return of summer musicals to the Opera House stage

June 20, 2022
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What a way to make a living! “9 to 5” marks return of summer musicals to the Opera House stage (All images courtesy Penobscot Theatre Company/Bill Kuykendall)

BANGOR – A beloved recent theatrical tradition is returning to the area after a hiatus of a couple of years.

Penobscot Theatre Company’s next production will be the musical “9 to 5,” bringing back the theatre’s summer spectacular for the first time since 2019. This show – based on the 1980 movie of the same name – features music and lyrics by Dolly Parton with a book by Patricia Resnick, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay. Directed by Ethan Paulini, the production’s preview performances are set for June 23 and 24, with the official opening night set for June 25. From there, the show will run through July 31.

“9 to 5” was meant to fill this slot during the 2020 season, but the show was postponed due to COVID. Now – after the summer slot went unfilled in 2021 as well – the big, flashy extravaganza is back!

Past shows to fill this slot – billed for years as the “surprise” show – include musicals like “Rock of Ages,” “The Full Monty” and “Mamma Mia!” The one non-musical exception was the beloved comedy “Shear Madness.” Regardless, the show was always intended to serve as a big, bold close to the season, a chance for area audiences to enjoy some summer fun.

There’s no need to delve too deeply into the plot particulars, but here’s a brief synopsis courtesy of the PTC website:

This hilarious story of friendship and revenge in the rolodex era is outrageous, thought-provoking, and even a little romantic! When three female co-workers are pushed to the boiling point, they each concoct hilarious plans to get even with the sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot they call their boss. Hey, a girl can scheme, can’t she?

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Seeing a show of this scale grace the Bangor Opera House stage once again is truly welcome. However, that scale means that there are a LOT of people working VERY hard to bring the production to life. Whether we’re talking about the performers or the production team, making something this big work involves a ton of collaborative effort.

As such, I thought it might be nice to offer readers a bit of perspective on the show through some conversations with a few of the principals. Director Ethan Paulini and actors Christie Robinson and Heather Astbury-Libby – two of the three women in the central trio – were kind enough to share some of their thoughts about the show, their process and what it’s like to be bringing summer excitement back to the Opera House stage.

A conversation with “9 to 5” director Ethan Paulini

Ethan Paulini is a veteran actor, director and choreographer who has worked with theatres all over the country. He is the current Artistic Director at the Weathervane Theatre in New Hampshire and Associate Artistic Director at the Off-Broadway company Out of the Box Theatrics. Among his many credits are several of these summer extravaganzas at PTC – he helmed “The Full Monty” in 2017 and “Mamma Mia!” in 2019 – so he’s an ideal person to get things rolling again.

Here are some of his thoughts on the upcoming production of “9 to 5.”

What are some of the things about this show that drew you to want to direct it?

Well, Dolly’s music is a start. Besides the iconic title number there are so many other great pieces of music that have found their way into the canon especially “Get Out and Stay Out” which I lovingly refer to as “Defying Gravity 2.0.”

Additionally, I think a show like this really hits differently in this moment in time. I was slated to direct this in summer of 2020, but we all know what happened there. In that time, the idea of the “American Workplace” as really shifted from the typical office culture this show explores. Now the workforce has many options from remote and zoom work to nontraditional hours. So while this piece was always set squarely at a specific time, it has sort of deepened in its inadvertent function as a period piece.

You’ve directed a number of large-scale spectacle-type shows, both at PTC and elsewhere. What is it that you love about this sort of splashy production?

I do theatre because of the collaboration. The best idea in the room always wins. While I am tasked with determining what that best idea ultimately is, I love the sharing of experience and talent and energy. There are so many moving parts and watching them all come together is the reward for those of us who get to participate in every part of the process.

What are some of the challenges of mounting a show like this one?

A lot of overlap with the answer above. Lots of moving parts, literally and figuratively, to make sure they are created and executed in tandem to compliment and not hinder each other. There has also been a challenge for the cast in understanding some of the circumstances present in the world of this show. Most have not worked in a traditional office job, and many weren’t even alive when this show takes place so we have had a lot of discussion about adapting their modern sensibilities to fit this world.

How do you think this show will appeal to the Bangor audience? And what are some things you hope people take away from it?

Gender equality is at the heart of this piece. While we follow our main characters in a quest for opportunity and respect in a male dominated world, there are parallels with current events that I hope will provoke thought alongside the lighter moments. When this movie came out 40 years it was groundbreaking in the issues it explored. It became a hit because of those iconic performers, but it remains a classic because of the continued need for conversation, growth and accountability.

Can you share a little bit of your process regarding a production like this? Both in terms of how you prepare and how you work once everyone is in the room?

I start with the source material and compare it to the adaptation that is present in the piece itself. I make a choice about concept and whether you take a traditional, tried and true approach or if there is some element of reinvention. From there it is a lot of conversation. Once in the room it is important to get the entire team, cast and creatives on the same page in terms of style and tone. I will often do this by offering examples of research, resources or other materials they might use to understand the style etc.

Any songs or moments that are particular highlights for you? No spoilers, of course …

I think they did a great job of adapting the most beloved aspects of the film, while still giving this musical its own identity, but I think the character of Roz is especially fun in the musical and it is played to the hilt by Janelle Robinson in this production.

Chatting with some of the divas of “9 to 5”

Christie Robinson and Heather Astbury-Libby are both veterans of the PTC stage, having appeared in numerous shows over the years. In “9 to 5,” they are each playing one of the trio of women at the center of the play’s action; they took the time to answer some questions about the show, their experience and what it means to be bringing spectacle like this back to Bangor.

Can you share a few thoughts on the character you're playing?

Christie Robinson: Doralee is sweet, sexy, funny, and someone who is easily misunderstood, simply because of how she looks. She wears big hair, big makeup, big colors, big … well, you know [Editor’s note: Yes. I do know.]. People just assume that she is a dumb blonde, but really, she is one of the smartest in the room and you really don’t want to mess with her (you’ll definitely be sorry). Doralee is a perfect example of not judging a book by its cover – there’s so much to learn and know about her beyond what meets the eye, if people would just give her a chance. 

Heather Astbury-Libby: Violet is a strong, independent single mother that has found herself in a man’s job, trying to carve out her own achievements and the sexiest environment is causing her to take matters into her own hands.

Talk a little bit about the show itself and how it resonates with you.

CR: It’s amazing to me that the film was written and produced over 40 years ago, the stage musical was adapted and produced on Broadway over a decade ago, and the story is STILL relevant! I think the story has something for everyone who has ever worked a job: the alarm goes off, you stumble out of bed to the kitchen to make that cup of Folgers “ambition,” and you go to work the daily grind (hoping for that promotion, trying to prove your worth, dealing with wonderful people and difficult people, etc.) for eight hours. At the end of the day, you set your alarm, go to sleep, and start all over again. I think that even if you haven’t seen the film, audience members will be able to see the characters and say, “that’s me – that’s my life.” And, of course, the film was such a blockbuster smash that audiences will be very pleased to hear their favorite lines and see their favorite scenes. People will definitely be able to kick back, relax, laugh, enjoy a fun night at the theater, and maybe walk away being changed for the better in some way. 

HAL: This show took the iconic movie’s comedy and charm, then added the music of Dolly Parton to it. You will not stop laughing at the extreme measures these three women will go to to escape this HR nightmare of a job environment. The audience will be pulling for the ladies as they try to shoot, poison and lasso their sexist boss. This show strikes something in women everywhere, reminding us not long ago in the past, women fought for voting rights, equal pay, etc. And to share the stage with such talent and dear friends is a dream!

Do you have any previous connection to the material, whether it be the show itself, the movie it's based upon or both?

CR: I've always loved the film, this stage show, and I've always been such a fan of Dolly Parton. The pandemic has been the pits, and ironically, so much of the light at the end of the tunnel came from her. What she did to fund a vaccine, her reading books at home via video to delight and entertain, her concerts to no live audience, etc. Dolly has been a shining light who uses her powers for good, and now she will, through this production, shine on and carry hope at PTC.

HAL: I adored the movie and by the end, it always has me standing with these characters against one of the worst bosses in cinematic history.

What is the process like to prepare for an undertaking like this?

CR: Taking on a role like this is such a delightful challenge. You want to pay homage and respect the person whom the role was initially written for, but you don’t necessarily want to do a full-on impression. Let’s face it – no one can be Dolly but Dolly herself, am I right? To prepare, I spent a lot of time listening to Dolly speak, more than anything. I listened to a lot of interviews to get a grasp on her vocal tone, her speech patterns, her beautiful Tennessee accent, etc. I have taken all of that information to give the people what they want and expect, but also to marry her with my own interpretation. Dolly Parton is only the most successful and beloved singer-songwriter-philanthropist-Hollywood-superstars on the planet…there’s no pressure!

HAL: As much as you might love the movie, you need to find your own connection to the character. I'm portraying the iconic character created by Lily Tomlin; the challenge comes in finding a balance between the work in the original movie and your own new, fresh take on it.

Do you have a favorite song and/or moment that you'd like to share?

CR: My favorite song at the moment is “Shine Like the Sun,” which is the closing of Act One. It’s a song about overcoming your hardships and taking control of your own life. It’s such an uplifting piece and I have loved singing it since I first heard it over a decade ago.

HAL: “I Just Might” is a moment of self-doubt, self-reflection and self-worth. I think in that moment you see all three women in their most vulnerable states. Lyrically, it’s beautiful and to sing with these ladies is a true honor.

How does it feel to be part of returning a big splashy summer musical to the Opera House stage?

CR: Oh my gosh! It makes me giddy to finally share this with our audience. This production has been nearly three years in the making. When I walked into the rehearsal room the first day of work, I was bursting with joy. It has been a LONG wait to get back to my first true love, the theater, and it all feels overwhelming in the best of ways. When that glorious day finally arrives and we get in front of an audience with this wonderful, splashy musical, my fake eye lashes might start floating – it’s going to be emotional. I can’t wait!

HAL: It's funny … PTC has learned that if there is a summer in Bangor, there needs to be a fun, toe-tapping musical that breathes life into the theatre as the last show of the season. “9 to 5,” “Rock of Ages,” “Rocky Horror,” “The Full Monty,” “Mamma Mia” – they scream summer fun, don't they?! I adore this theatre and the work we create here, but there's something special about the summer musical. It's always the party of the year and never disappoints. 

Last modified on Wednesday, 22 June 2022 11:46

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