Outside the theater at San Marcos High School on a recent Friday afternoon, things are going pretty much as you would expect. Tennis players are hitting their two-fisted backhands, band kids are toting a pair of big bass drums, a lone twirler is practicing tosses at the base of the outdoor amphitheater, and a couple is testing the school’s policies on public display of affection in the shade of a nearby tree. There’s nothing that would indicate that this is spring 2016, or that it is not.
Inside the theater, on the other hand, it’s looking like 1980 all over again, as teen actors dance and sing their way across a stage that’s set with such relics of the distant past as rotary dial telephones and non-Aeron desk chairs. This is the Bullpen, the central gathering place for employees in the musical version of Dolly Parton’s hit 1980 film 9 to 5. Playing opposite the equally legendary Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, Parton drove this charming slice of second-wave feminist populism straight to the bank. When it came time to reimagine what had by then become a cult classic film for the Broadway musical stage, Parton was on hand once again to write new songs and shepherd the project through a development process that included a trial run at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles before transferring to New York in 2009, where the show earned several Tony nominations and a Drama Desk Award for Allison Janney as Outstanding Actress in a Musical.
So, why no Tony wins? And what’s the point of doing this show at San Marcos? I’m glad you asked. As for the Tony snubs, the critics were divided on this one. While they agreed that Parton and her collaborators had crafted a solid entry in the stage’s most exacting genre, the big musical, they were less than unanimous about the show’s relevance, as many of the sexist remarks made by the show’s villain, boss Franklin M. Hart Jr., were deemed out-of-date — which leads us to how remarkably suitable the show has become for high school actors in 2016, particularly those blessed with the leadership of a young female director like Riley Berris, who took over the San Marcos theater program from veteran teacher David Holmes just two years ago.
“I wanted to do something that was female-centered,” Berris told me last week as we watched rehearsal. “I realized that we had, with both Crazy for You and The Laramie Project, inadvertently veered off in a direction that put men at the center, and I just had too much talent on the feminine side not to want to change that.” She could hardly have made a more effective choice. For these young performers, gender-based workplace injustice sadly remains an important issue, and slapstick comedy of course never goes out of style. Add the fact that country pop, thanks to Taylor Swift, has never been more relevant, and you have a recipe for consciousness raising and self-discovery that’s not only educational but also loads of fun.
Already the show’s promotional video, which was entirely student-made by Andrew Davis and viewable on YouTube, demonstrates just how powerful the dynamic trio of female leads will be. Choreographer Jessica Hambright promises that the talented dancers will be pushed to their limits by an exciting and athletic set of numbers. As for the story, well, if you don’t remember the film, let me just say that you are in for a few surprises, all of them most satisfying, circa 2016. So buy your tickets now and prepare to love the ’80s and revel in a working world where women, against all odds, come out on top.
9 to 5, the Musical will be at the San Marcos High School Theater Thursday-Saturday, May 5-7 and 12-14, at 7 p.m. For more information visit smhstheaterdept.com/show-dates, and to buy tickets go to shopsmroyals.org.