REVIEW: “Tootsie” is both fun and fraught
Theatre vets entering the Marquis Theatre where “Tootsie”, a new musical version of the much-beloved 1982 film, opened last week might take notice that the gallery of jumbo-sized window cards from prior shows that have played this lousy barn of an auditorium are no longer on display in the lobby.
Nearly all were flops. Based off audience and critical reaction, “Tootsie” is poised to be a hit. And that fact is the puzzle of the season.
While “Tootsie” may be the movie-to-stage adaptation that no one asked for, I admit there is much to like about this well-constructed and cheerful musical comedy, from the sitcom-tautness of its jokes to the abundant talent of the cast. Santino Fontana, in particular, gives a boffo performance as Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels.
But there’s also plenty about this show that irks: a confused tone, an uninspired design, and an overriding sense of performative, self-flagellating apology that permeates the enterprise as the creative team winks then shrugs: “yeah, we recognize this property is cringeworthy by today’s social and political standards . . . but we’re gonna do it anyway.”
The fundamental plot of “Tootsie”, in which an arrogant and difficult out-of-work actor capriciously disguises himself as a woman to land an acting gig (because, ya know, women have it easier) and becomes a sensation (naturally) before having to reckon with his deceit (who saw that coming?), has not aged well.
I’ve seen the film once or twice, and thought it was just fine. Why anyone thought it ought to be a musical, in 2019 no less, is beyond me, and though it has many moments that delight, by the end, the show is so exhausted by its own contorted premise that the finale amounts to a white flag of surrender.
Book writer Robert Horn (“13 The Musical”), composer and lyricist David Yazbek (“The Band’s Visit”), and director Scott Ellis (“Kiss Me, Kate”) bend over backward to prove to the audience that they recognize the ickiness of the original story, that they are hip to shifting mores around women’s equality and gender identity, and have shaped a new version that falls on the “right side” of our culture.
In the film, actor Michael Dorsey (famously played by Dustin Hoffman who gets credit in the program for “underlying rights”) lands a role on a soap opera as his female alter-ego, Dorothy Michaels. For the Broadway musical, Michael/Dorothy (Mr. Fontana) is cast in a Broadway musical, which is a smart adaptation move representing the best the writers could do with the story to make it sing.
On a tip overheard from his one-time girlfriend, the abundantly neurotic but one-note Sandy Lester (Sarah Stiles), Michael/Dorothy slips into an audition for the role of Juliet’s nurse in a musical sequel to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” called “Juliet’s Curse”. After being fired from director Ron Carlisle’s (Reg Rogers) last project in the opening number, Michael evades Ron’s memory dressed as Dorothy, and wins the support of producer Rita Marshall (Julie Halston).
As much suspension of belief as it requires to get to that point, in the rehearsal room of this truly bizarre musical-within-a-musical, Dorothy takes over, convincing the creative team to shift the story so drastically that the show changes from “Juliet’s Curse” to “Juliet’s Nurse”—making Dorothy a marquee star overnight.
In the process, Michael/Dorothy builds a friendship with co-star Julie Nichols (Lilli Cooper)—with whom he falls in love—and earns the unwanted infatuation of co-star Max Van Horn (John Behlmann), a reality TV star cast not for his talent but rather for his hot bod and name recognition. All the while, Michael’s sardonic roommate, Jeff Slater (the hilarious Andy Grotelueschen), serves as Cassandra, accurately warning of the doom headed Michael’s way.
“Tootsie” is solidly built, bearing the familiar feel of a formulaic musical adaptation. Mr. Horn’s book offers plenty of laughs, but gets too cute and borderline offensive when it tries to poke fun at the social, cultural, and political moment at which it arrives.
As sleazy director Ron pulls Julie aside at rehearsal he says “I’m moving you, I’m not touching you”—and there are audible groans from the audience. Other moments involve bald speechifying, as when Michael’s agent Stan Fields (Michael McGrath) goes on a tangent, offering to Michael: “Be a he, be a she, be a they, use whatever bathroom you want and don’t let anybody tell you, you can’t.”
The central joke of choreographer Denis Jones’ otherwise wonderfully cheeky movement is a riff on the famous Robin Williams improvisation from “The Birdcage” (“Fosse! Fosse! Fosse!”). It’s mildly amusing, if not a rip-off, the first time, as Ron leads his bewildered ensemble in rehearsal; lame upon repeat; and downright mystifying as a post-bow routine involving the whole cast.
In the world of musical theatre, Mr. Yazbek is the master at writing comedic songs for film to stage adaptations (“The Fully Monty”, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”). No one does it better, or more consistently insists on an overture and entr’acte, which I admire. His work here, though, is his weakest to date. When, amid one of several patter songs, Michael’s roommate, Jeff, stops and says: “I lost my train of thought”, he’s speaking a larger truth about the score as a whole. While the tunes are upbeat, snappy, and dare I say “memorable”, several songs like “What’s Gonna Happen”, “There Was John”, and “Jeff Sums It Up” ramble.
The score is also indicative of a larger visual and aural disconnect. “Tootsie” is set in present day New York, yet Mr. Yazbek’s jazzy pop reflects more the time period of the film rather than current musical sensibility, and David Rockwell’s set design, bounded by an impressionistic background skyline in pastels, reads any time but now. The existence of the Internet also makes Dorothy’s rise so unbelievably implausible, leading me to the ultimate question: in what consistent reality does “Tootsie” exist?
The story is a fantastical one that is alternately rooted in moments of grounded truth (Dorothy’s scenes with Julie, Michael’s scenes with Jeff) that boomerang with moments of sheer absurdity (Ron’s rehearsal room, everything about “Juliet’s Nurse”, the fact of Michael’s success). Complementing this story disconnect are literal, realistic foreground spaces in Mr. Rockwell’s set in which semi-cartoonish scenes occur. Director Scott Ellis finds no way to square these circles, as the only “real” people on stage appear to be Julie, Jeff, and Stan.
All of this is fine, of course. “Tootsie” is a musical after all, and audiences will follow anywhere a musical wants to take them (see: “Cats”) if it establishes rules and follows them. However, the relentless inconsistencies abounding in “Tootsie” muddle the overall tone of the production, which fortunately benefits from a constant stream of laughter and a suite of magnetic performances that mask this underlying deficiency.
In the end, Michael’s epiphany that “being a woman is no job for a man” is xeroxed and uninspired. Despite Mr. Fontana’s energetic and comical performance, the character on the page gives the audience no reason to care for or root for him on stage. He’s arrogant and myopic, has no backstory to speak of, and seems to learn close to nothing over the course of his spectacular ruse. We now know what would happen if Evan Hansen or Jeremy Heere grew up and pursued an acting career.
I felt sorry for Julie, who thinks she’s found a real friend in Dorothy who becomes a romantic interest, challenging Julie’s assumed heterosexuality, before revealing herself to be a fraud. Yet, in the end, it’s Julie who looks like she’s about to settle for Michael, or at least accept his unearned apology, as the curtain falls. And there’s that white flag I alluded to earlier.
Amid its shiny patina of musical comedy conventions, “Tootsie” is safe, albeit enjoyable, and quietly apologetic for existing. For all its faults, the show is fun and well-constructed enough to save itself, and harmless only so far as it has absolutely nothing smart to say about gender and gender identity despite both playing such a central role in the plot. Queer writers Brin Solomon and Christian Lewis both offer compelling arguments that the show is in fact quite harmful to the trans community, and is fundamentally transphobic (both pieces are well worth reading).
My many asterisks aside, if that wall of window cards in the lobby of the Marquis is ever restored, there’s no doubt that “Tootsie” will be considered among the few hits. And I’ll still be puzzled as to why.
Note: this review has been updated to include reference to pieces by Brin Solomon and Christian Lewis.
Bottom Line: “Tootsie” is a mixed bag. A well-constructed, cheerful, and funny musical comedy with a suite of magnetic performances, it has a confused tone, disconnected visual and aural sensibility, and next to nothing smart to say about gender despite gender playing such a central role in the plot. It exists in no consistent reality, and leaves many circles left un-squared.