April 23, 2019
Meet Dorothy Michaels: Renowned stage actress and chanteuse. A brutally honest feminist who’s built like a Hummer, she lives in New York, and — oh, right — she’s really a he.
Dorothy is the memorable main character of Broadway’s funniest new musical, “Tootsie,” which opened Tuesday night. Once again, it’s taken a drag musical to drag us out of the doldrums.
“Tootsie” is nothing like “Kinky Boots” or “La Cage aux Folles,” however. For one, Dorothy ain’t pretty when she dons her wig and iconic red dress. Take this classic line from the 1982 Dustin Hoffman movie on which this show is based. “I’d like to make her look a little more attractive. How far can you pull back?” the soap opera producer asks a cameraman. “How do you feel about Cleveland?” he responds. Not that you’ll hear that line onstage: Book writer Robert Horn has smartly moved the action from TV soap to Broadway stage.
Even with a score by Tony winner David Yazbek, “Tootsie” doesn’t feel so much like a razzmatazz musical as it does a sitcom in its prime. With a slate of mean, neurotic New York characters getting themselves into impossibly wacky scenarios, it’s practically “Seinfeld: Live!” With killer jokes to match.
The plot kicks into gear when struggling actor Michael Dorsey (Santino Fontana) can’t land a part in a show — not because he’s lousy, but because he’s a jackass. He has frequent outbursts, often telling directors that their musicals stink. So he’s a bad employee, but he’s a killer teacher. One day, while he’s telling a friend and fellow performer, Sandy (Sarah Stiles in Teri Garr’s part in the film), how she should be reading her lines, she says through tears, “You’re even a better woman than I am!”
And thus Dorothy Michaels is born. Inspired, Michael arrives at New 42nd Street Studios with a wig and a prayer, ready to audition for a role in “Juliet’s Curse,” a sequel to “Romeo and Juliet.”
If Fontana isn’t as instantly convincing a woman as Hoffman was, due to the limitations of onstage quick changes, wait till you hear him sing. He croons the tuneful audition song, “I Won’t Let You Down,” in a remarkably high, seismic voice that leaves no doubt in your mind that she’s our girl.
That farcical setup — and Horn’s extraordinary new book, which is even funnier than the movie — delivers the finest collection of character actors onstage right now. Reg Rogers makes hay out of a cliché as a narcissist director who can’t quite wrap his head around #MeToo. Showing an actress where to stand, he mutters, “I’m moving you, not touching you.” And Stiles cranks up Garr’s Sandy’s insecurity to 11 when she sings a patter song about how horrible auditions are. There are many more, but to list them would read like an Oscars speech.
While Yazbek’s jazzy score doesn’t reach the heights of his work in “The Band’s Visit,” there are a few really terrific numbers. You won’t leave “Tootsie” humming, but you will leave laughing — which is even better.