Apr 24, 2019
Following in the footsteps of NETWORK and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the musical comedy Tootsie continues this Broadway season’s welcome trend of adapting classic, decades-old source material into brand new stage pieces that examine familiar stories through a contemporary lens.
It’s also a flat-out laff-riot from start to finish, featuring a cast packed with expert stage comedians landing bookwriter Robert Horn‘s archly-humored gags, enhanced by David Yazbek‘s muscularly-rhythmed jazz score that propels his attractively glib lyrics, occasionally giving way to sparklingly sincere poetics.
Named by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as one of America’s “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films” deemed worthy of preservation, director Sydney Pollack‘s 1982 hit starred Dustin Hoffman as Michael Dorsey, a very good actor whose habit of being a dominating perfectionist has alienated himself from the entire industry. Told by his agent that nobody will work with him, Michael reinvents himself as Dorothy Michaels and lands a gig on a soap opera. But his outspoken, perfectionist habits remain and when he starts rewriting his role to make her a strong, intelligent, independent woman, and refuses to accept the casual sexism of the workplace (like being referred to as Tootsie), Dorothy Michaels becomes nationally known as a new feminist icon.
And while “Tootsie” on film is still a part of American pop culture, there have also been understandable objections raised about its celebration of a man who “discovers” sexism and finds himself helping to lead the fight against the patriarchy. In a time when well-meaning, but misguided feminist men may not understand that being a good ally requires stepping back rather than taking charge, director Scott Ellis and the musical’s authors highlight moments that assure the audience that they understand Michael’s failings, and the evening nicely concludes not with a traditional happy ending, but with a much-needed teaching moment.
Fortunately for all concerned, Santino Fontana, an actor who excels at playing the darker shadings of nice people without losing sympathy, is on hand to make the musical’s leading character a sincere fellow whose focus on artistic success blocks his view of how his choices affect others. Michael’s attitude towards women may not be perfect (a scene remains where he attempts to use his double identity to trick a woman into being attracted to him) but he learns that he needs to do better.
The creators smartly move the story from 1980s television to contemporary Broadway, not only allowing it to sing and dance more organically, but toning it down to something more insular, involving a community that prides itself on being at the forefront of progressive thought, and requiring new approaches to the material that go far beyond copying and pasting the screenplay onto the stage and adding songs.
So Michael’s slacker playwright roommate Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen as the sardonic voice of reason), not only objects to the insanity of Michael believing he can pass himself off as a woman long term but points out the sexism of his actions. (“At a time when women are literally clutching their power back from between the legs of men, you have the audacity to take a job away from one by perpetrating one?”)
The job in question is an emergency replacement for the Nurse in a musical sequel to Shakespeare’s classic called “Juliet’s Curse,” which he hears about from his overly codependent ex, Sandy (comic gem Sarah Stiles), who hangs around hoping she and Michael will get back together. (Don’t worry, she has a learning moment, too.) Sandy’s anxiety over personal failures (“My phone no longer recognizes my face I.D. unless I’m crying.”), inspires Yazbek’s best number, a wild patter of negative expectations called “What’s Gonna Happen” that allows Stiles to bring down the house with her manic performance.
When Michael arrives at the audition as Dorothy, it’s no glammed up drag show, nor is Fontana asked to play obvious gags about a man being unaccustomed to wearing high heels and dresses. The point is that he’s a really good actor (and apparently great at improvisation) who can even convincingly sing in a woman’s lower register.
With the gradual inclusion of gender-fluidity enhancing Broadway productions like this season’s STRAIGHT WHITE MEN and HEAD OVER HEELS, one might wonder why Michael doesn’t play Dorothy as someone who presents as female, but “Juliet’s Curse” is directed and choreographed by a snooty and self-important auteur (grandly theatrical Reg Rogers) who vowed never to work with Michael again after firing him from his last musical for insisting that every move made by his ensemble character, “guy who walks by,” be motivated by the intricate backstory he created, so secrecy is needed.
Michael, as Dorothy, recognizes the lameness of the material, that invents a convoluted reason for Juliet to escape death and then become the object of passion for Romeo’s brother, and is vocal about his ideas to rewrite it, including having the older Nurse being the one the young man lusts for. We later find out that the musical’s leading lady, Julie (Lilli Cooper supplying the sympathetic realism that grounds Tootsie‘s zaniness) agrees with Dorothy’s assessment of the show (“Playing Juliet on Broadway is a dream come true. Playing her in ‘Juliet’s Curse’ sucks.”) but has been keeping her mouth shut about it because she knows that, as a woman, it’s easy to be labeled as difficult to work with.
Michael, of course, has never been conditioned to keep his opinions to himself, and Dorothy immediately earns the support of the musical’s producer, played with old-school comic guts by another theatre gem, Julie Halston. (“Sometimes I wish my first husband could look down from heaven and see me now. But no, the bastard is still alive.”) Also approving is the musical-within-the-musical’s thickheaded leading man, Max (adorably sweet John Behlmann) whose only qualifications for starring on Broadway are his fame from winning the TV reality show, “Race To Bachelor Island,” and his willingness to remove his shirt on stage.
For the record, the authors of “Juliet’s Curse” appear long enough to say hello and are never heard from again.
While Julie appreciates the support and friendship offered by Dorothy, unaware that Michael is growing more and more attracted to her, Max finds himself falling for his new co-star. Though his pursuit of Dorothy borders on obsession, he is always respectful and aware of her personal space.
A bit cut off from the main plot, Tony-winner Michael McGrath, playing Michael’s agent, only appears in two scenes and doesn’t even have a song, but the seasoned Broadway pro is uproarious with every exasperated moment his character is on stage, nailing zingers like, “New York is a congested island lodged between two cesspools, and I’m the lifeguard making sure actors don’t drown in their own narcissism.”
Whether or not Tootsie on stage would satisfy those who had concerns about the approach to feminism the musical’s predominantly male creative team would offer is for others to determine. This reviewer was delighted to see a story about a person with privilege learning a bit about what it means to be a good ally.
But, gender politics aside, Tootsie is slick and professional musical comedy that satisfies as vivacious entertainment.
Just one minor criticism. During the production number where Michael envisions his Dorothy becoming a Broadway star playing classic roles like Eva Peron, Roxie Hart and Mother Courage, it would have been fun to see him imagining another opportunity his career as a woman might offer him… King Lear.