Tootsie review – Broadway adaptation is a giddy night out

The Marquis Theatre, New York

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend star Santino Fontana gives a charming performance as a man dressing up as a woman to get ahead

What if all that stood between you and success was a full-body wax and some mid-heel pumps? Tootsie, the kicky musical adaptation of the 1982 movie, is a Broadway fairytale that imagines that career triumph and emotional intelligence might be as easy – and as hard – as putting on a dress.

Too many shows in the movie-to-Broadway pipeline imagine that it’s enough to add in a couple of songs, deliver some dance breaks and organize a curtain call. Not Tootsie. The story of a struggling actor and a middling man who becomes a better actor and a better man by becoming a woman, it has been perkily rejiggered for Broadway by the composer David Yazbek, the book writer Robert Horn and the director Scott Ellis.

Now Michael Dorsey (Santino Fontana), a would-be Main Stem star, has fulminated his way out of every casting office in town. But when his ex-girlfriend Sandy (Sarah Stiles, reclaiming shrill, delightfully) arrives with sides for a new show, he sees an opportunity. Transforming into a matronly redhead, Dorothy Michaels, he nabs the role: nurse in an unspeakable and pretty much unsingable tuner called Juliet’s Curse. (Then again, as Shakespeare sequels go, it might hold its own with Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, playing one street over.)

Because this is 2019 and not 1982, there are a few not especially convincing gestures toward wokeness. Michael’s playwright roommate, Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen, schlubby and just perfect), is horrified by his deception, saying, “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?” That’s not where the power most women are interested is located. And um, literally?

But Michael isn’t the kind of guy to let centuries of systemic oppression slow him down and with the wig as cover he’s as difficult as ever, though he has learned to express himself more diplomatically as he tweaks the show’s characters, its dialogue, its throughline, even its costumes. With the approval of the show’s producer (a gorgeously daft Julie Halston) and the contempt of its sleazy director (Reg Rogers doing Reg Rogers, just a little more villainously), he creates a richer role for his leading lady and love interest, Julie (Lilli Cooper, classy in a bland part). And somehow he makes an actor of her dumb-as-a-box-of-protein-bars co-star, Max (John Behlmann, a beefcake with superb timing). As Dorothy, he even demands equal pay for Julie. What a lady. What a guy.

The songs are peppy, if not especially remarkable, somewhat in the vein of Yazbek’s earlier shows like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. There’s nothing as swoony as Omar Sharif here. But Yazbek shows his gift for writing for character, with Sandy’s high-anxiety What’s Gonna Happen and Jeff’s dry, cackling Jeff Sums It Up. A lot of Horn’s jokes are groaners, but some of them aren’t and the script is packed with so many that the laughs-per-minute ratio stays pretty high. The cast is a treat, particularly the supporting actors, whose characters are written more playfully and at times more cogently than Michael or Julie, though Fontana is working overtime, backwards and forwards, in heels and out, to make Dorothy more than a caricature and Michael more than a jerk. He’s even found a distinct singing voice for Dorothy, a fleecy contralto.

There are so many things that Tootsie does right, that it’s frustrating what it gets wrong. This is still a show in which women – or maybe just their clothes – are the vehicle for male self-improvement. And if you’re yet another musical with an all-male creative team, maybe don’t have both of your major female characters sing songs about how crazy they are, like Sandy’s What’s Gonna Happen and Julie’s Gone, Gone, Gone.

Still, Tootsie is a giddy night out, which is what most people will want from a Broadway comedy. And if the show never gives the sense that Michael has really walked a mile in a woman’s shoes, at least it asks him to perform a tap number in them. It’s a start.

Contributor

Alexis Soloski

The GuardianTramp

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