Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 23, 2019
Tootsie Music and lyrics by David Yazbek. Book by Robert Horn. Based on the story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart and the Columbia Pictures motion picture produced by Punch Productions and starring Dustin Hoffman. Directed by Scott Ellis. Choreographed by Denis Jones. Scenic design by David Rockwell. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Hair and wig design by Paul Huntley. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Music supervisors Andrea Grody and Dean Sharenow. Vocal and incidental arrangements by Andrea Grody. Dance arrangements by David Chase. Orchestrations by Simon Hale. Music coordinator Dean Sharenow. Associate director Dave Solomon. Associate choreographer Barry Busby. Music director Andrea Grody. Cast: Santino Fontana, Lilli Cooper, Sarah Stiles, John Behlmann, Andy Grotelueschen, Julie Halston, Michael McGrath, Reg Rogers, Paula Leggett Chase, Britney Coleman, Leslie Donna Flesner, John Arthur Greene, Drew King, Harris Milgrim, Shina Ann Morris, James Moye, Katerina Papacostas, Nick Spangler, Diana Vaden, and Anthony Wayne.
If you've seen the movie with Dustin Hoffman in the title role, you already have a pretty good idea of what to expect. In this musical, based on the film and its story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart, the "leading lady" is played by Santino Fontana. He is the ambitious but irritatingly uncooperative, and therefore usually unemployed, New York theater actor named Michael Dorsey. The premise, in a nutshell, is that Michael learns to get in touch with his inner woke guy only after he dresses and presents himself as a woman.
It all starts out as a desperate ploy in order to land a role. Thus is born Dorothy Michaels. In this guise, Michael finds himself suddenly more marketable. He is also able to be assertive without being assaultive, smart without being a smart-ass, and confident without being overbearing. Michael/Dorothy lands the role he's after, that of the Nurse in a musical that bills itself as a sequel to Romeo and Juliet, to be titled "Juliet's Curse."
I'll let you discover the nutso premise of "Juliet's Curse" for yourself, but I will note that the change in venue from the movie's soap opera setting to a theatrical one allows for a truckload of Broadway references and jokes, giddily playing on lots of familiar tropes and types. Among these are the incompetent, sexist director/choreographer Ron (Reg Rogers), who imagines himself to be a creative genius; the lead producer Rita (Julie Halston), who talks about how heavily invested in the show she is, though with other people's money, of course; and the hot and hunky but dumb as dirt leading man Max (John Behlmann), who is to play Romeo's long lost brother, Craig. In the role of Juliet in "Juliet's Curse" is Julie, played by Lilli Cooper, arguably the best singer in the entire cast of Tootsie. She gets to perform one of composer/lyricist David Yazbek's better numbers, "Gone, Gone, Gone," which is not plot-related but occurs during Julie's nightclub act.
As the show progresses, Michael/Dorothy gets more and more caught up with both "Juliet's Curse," which has been renamed "Juliet's Nurse" in recognition of its new star, and with its cast. What a Shakespearean (as in "Twelfth Night") bucket of worms is kicked over up when Michael falls in love with Julie and both Julie and Max fall in love with Dorothy. What could possibly go wrong?
Santino Fontana was a very good choice to play the role of Michael/Dorothy, even though It's hard to believe anyone would fail to see through his disguise; as others have pointed out, he does resemble Dana Carvey's Church Lady character from Saturday Night Live. But he shows far fewer sharp edges than Dustin Hoffman displays in the film, and his portrayal of Michael presents him as someone who clearly never means to harm others. The fallout is the unintended consequence of his short-sighted and desperate attempt at salvaging his career, where even his agent, played by Michael McGrath, has dumped him.
What Fontana does so well is to infuse his character with both comedy and heart. Still, this is far from a one-man/woman show. Much of Tootsie's strength comes from the performances by some great supporting players. Reg Rogers, Julie Halston, and John Behlmann are all terrific, while two others stand out at least as strongly. Sarah Stiles does wonders playing Michael's ex-girlfriend, the anxious, neurotic, and self-deprecating Sandy. As written, Sandy is as one-dimensional as can be, but Yazbek has given her a gloriously loopy patter song that allows her to shine as she offers up "What's Gonna Happen." What comes out is something like a cross between Gilbert and Sullivan's "Modern Major General" and Stephen Sondheim's "Getting Married Today." It's quite funny, even if you do have to listen to it being reprised a few times. Yazbek provides an even better number for Michael's closest friend and roommate, Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen), who is on hand with a show-stopping I-told-you-so song titled "Jeff Sums It Up," which gets to the heart of the matter when it all goes south: "Everything goes very well, but then (and how do I say it?), you fucked it up!"
There are a couple of clunky moments, to be sure, one of more problematic ones being the way that Michael's "big reveal" is handled. It's not that it stops the musical Tootsie cold; it's that it stops "Juliet's Nurse," the musical-within-the-musical, cold, and on its opening night, no less. The weird moment, seemingly improvised by Michael/Dorothy on the spot, worked well within its former soap opera framework, but it only muddies things here. You can't help but think about the audience's response and the future of that production. That's not something we should be thinking about at all; it strikes too sour a note. And speaking of notes, Yazbek's score does not come off at first listening as one of his finest, notwithstanding the Tony he won last year for The Band's Visit. At least on first listening, the score generally seems functional, serving the plot without providing too many memorable moments beyond the ones I've mentioned, the character numbers and Julie's nightclub song.
Notwithstanding these concerns, Tootsie hits the mark on so many levels. Apart from the abundance of top-notch performances under the direction of Scott Ellis (who is also helming the excellent current revival of Kiss Me, Kate!), there is Robert Horn's smart and funny book, Denis Jones' witty choreography which satirizes so many Broadway dance styles that it's hard to keep track, and lots and lots of visual gags you won't have to be too much of an insider to recognize. My advice is to take Tootsie for what it is, an entertaining confection to enjoy as we approach the end of the 2018-19 theater season.