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Phoenix Theatre's '9 to 5: The Musical' is funny, edgy

Fed up with their boss Franklin Hart Jr. (Tom Feehan), office workers Doralee Rhodes (Therese Thompson, left), Violet Newstead (Terese Bjornstad) and Judy Bernly (Anna Ostendorf) tie him up and take control in a scene from "9 to 5: The Musical."

Phoenix Theatre's summer show, "9 to 5: The Musical," has the look of the 1980s, but the sound is "solid Broadway," according to Director Sean Dowse.

And the mood?

"Very humorous and tuneful," Dowse said.

It's also "very edgy," according to Tom Feehan, who is cast as Franklin Hart Jr., the arrogant boss who makes life miserable for the women who work for him in a corporate office.

"Sexual harassment was sort of a new thing in 1979," Feehan pointed out.

Back in the late 1970s and early '80s, women were just taking the first steps toward getting control of their lives in the workplace, Dowse said.

During rehearsals for the musical, which opens Thursday for a two-weekend run at the Sheldon Theatre, there have been several of what he calls "discovery moments."

First, Dowse explained, they realized that embedded in the humor is a story of courage on the part of women working to be included in the power structure and not just misused by it.

Despite their very different personalities, three women band together.

For Violet (Terese Bjornstad), a longtime employee, the challenge is about discovering the courage within herself to change things.

The fact that Lily Tomlin played Violet in the movie put pressure on her as an actor, Bjornstad said. "I felt like screaming with joy and throwing up at the same time" when she learned she was cast in the role.

Her focus is on "showing Violet develop her strength as a woman in a man's world trying to break that glass ceiling."

The character Judy (Anna Ostendorf) is a naïve new employee; Jane Fonda had the movie role.

"Her struggle is to discover herself as a capable person with ideas and intelligence" who is not dependent on others, Dowse said.

She too has "big shoes to fill," Ostendorf said, "but it's a fun part." Judy is a kind of a doormat in the beginning. "She discovers her inner strength and refuses to let other people tell her what to do."

Doralee (Therese Thompson), a southern Belle, was played by Dolly Parton in the movie; Parton also wrote the music. She has the added challenge of fighting stereotyping. "When you look a certain way, many people underestimate your intelligence and capabilities," Dowse said. People unfairly judge her by her looks, which means she needs the courage to break through those biases and become the whole person she is.

"She's a very fun person to portray. I really enjoy it," Thompson said. "She's also a very strong woman, which I really appreciate. I love to portray that part of her as well."

Men in the play also must learn, Dowse said. Hart is already part of the power structure and needs the courage to join in the women's movement.

People of different ages likely will have different reactions, Dowse said. "Some say the battle is won," but in truth, people struggle in the workplace to assert their independence, to be confident leaders and to overcome stereotyping.

Feehan agreed. "We don't know enough about how women are inhibited even by the day to day things we do," he said.

The stage musical, although it is based on the movie, wasn't created until 2009, when Parton wrote several more songs and turned the story into a Broadway show, complete with fantasy sequences. In addition to the title tune, Dowse said, characters have lots of fun with such songs as "Backwoods Barbie," "Heart to Hart," "Cowgirls Revenge" and "Joy to the Girls."

The look of the show is very much the 1980s, including the costumes and hairdos.

"The office has IBM Selectrics in it, and there are no cell phones," Dowse said.

"They're a great, capable cast," he added. "They're smart people and they're really fun to work with."

Performances of will be at 7 p.m. July 12-14 and 20-21, plus there's a matinee at 2 p.m. July 22. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for students, plus a $2.50 sustainability fee. Go online to or call 651-388-8700.

If you go...

What: "9 to 5: The Musical"

Who: Phoenix Theatre

When: 7 p.m. July 12-14 and 20-21, 2 p.m. July 22

Where: Sheldon Theatre, 443 W. Third St.

How much: $20 adults, $12 students, plus fee

More info: or 651-388-8700