Three years ago, when Penobscot Theatre Company announced that the musical version of beloved movie “9 to 5” would be its summer show for 2020, the idea was simply that people would enjoy a fun romp featuring Dolly Parton’s iconic songs.
Now, as the production finally premieres on the Bangor Opera House stage this week after three truncated pandemic seasons, Parton and writer Patricia Resnick’s tale of gender inequality and workplace revenge has taken on a far deeper resonance. In the midst of the ongoing Great Resignation, in which workers nationwide have quit to search for better-paying, more equitable jobs, “9 to 5” has become much more than just a musical.
“The movie came out in a time when women were really pushing against disparities in the workplace, and now we are again at a time in history where workers are saying, ‘No, we deserve to be treated fairly,’” said Jen Shepard, Penobscot Theatre’s executive director. “There’s a deeper theme about work-life balance and humanity and fairness there that we never could have predicted would resonate this way.”
Not to mention the fact that, three years ago, COVID-19 wasn’t even a word yet. The theater had to postpone the production twice due to the pandemic, so when the curtain rises on “9 to 5” on June 23, Shepard and her crew will breathe a huge sigh of relief.
“We have been waiting for literally years to do this show,” Shepard said. “I just hope this is the end of this chapter of these abnormal years. I hope this is the kind of joyful return to normalcy that we’ve been praying for.”
The show stars Penobscot Theatre stalwarts Christie Robinson, Heather McCarthy and Laura Hodos as Doralee, Violet and Judy, the iconic trio at the core of the story, played in the film by Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. They enact revenge on their misogynist boss, Franklin Hart, played by Penobscot Theatre newcomer Kyle Munson, and find sisterhood with one another.
It’s directed by Ethan Paulini, who has led other productions from the theater company including “The Full Monty” and “Beauty and the Beast,” and it features memorable 1980s-inspired costumes by Kevin Koski and a set designed by Penobscot Theater’s outgoing interim artistic director Tricia Hobbs.
The theater’s new artistic director, Chicago theater artist Jonathan Berry, will start his new position in Bangor next month, and earlier this month the company announced its upcoming 2022-23 season — the first full season for the theater company since 2018-19. It features a slate of productions that include incisive contemporary plays like small-town drama “Clarkston” and Mindy Kaling’s comedy “Matt and Ben,” family-friendly musicals like “Mary Poppins” and original premieres like Maine lobster industry musical “Trapped!”
“9 to 5” comes at a pivotal moment for the theater, which has struggled to get ticket sales back to normal after the delta and omicron variants of the coronavirus continued to scare theater-goers away during the colder months of this past season.
“It has felt, at times, like Sysiphus rolling the rock up the mountain,” Shepard said. “I’m not going to lie, it does scare me that some people may have gotten out of the habit of going out to the theater. That’s what keeps me up at night.”
That’s why there’s a lot riding on “9 to 5,” as the theater closes out what will hopefully be its last pandemic-affected season and moves onto a more stable future.
“This is a good way to cap off what’s been a really, really, really tough few years, and kick the summer into gear,” Shepard said. “It’s a really great reminder for all of us, audience and cast alike, that what we do is really fun.”
Tickets for “9 to 5” start at $35, and the show runs from June 23 through July 31. For tickets, visit penobscottheatre.org.