Wednesday, May 1, 2019

225 (2018-2019): Review: TOOTSIE (seen April 30, 2019)

“I Am a Man in Love! Toss Me My Bra”

This is for the couple sitting next to me at the Marquis Theatre to see Tootsie, the Broadway musical version of the 1982 Hollywood comedy in which Dustin Hoffman played Michael Dorsey, a struggling actor cast in a major role only when he convinces everyone he’s a woman.  
This sweet pair inquired during the intermission why I’d been scribbling, to which I replied I was a reviewer, telling them where they could find my reviews. Afterward, they asked if I’d liked it. Yes, I replied, having no time for quibbling. As I was writing this, I heard from one of them, asking if I’d put her on my mailing list, so I’m afraid she’s going to find some quibbles here. 
First, let me note that I saw Tootsie on the day it received 11 Tony nominations, in addition to the passel it previously received from other award-granters, like the Drama Desk. There was even an ironic moment when the “actress” Dorothy Michaels (the female persona adopted by Michael Dorsey) is mentioned as a potential Tony nominee. This gave the happy audience an opportunity to burst into cheers for the just-that-day nominated Santino Fontana, the actor playing the part. All he could do was stand there, smiling and soaking it all in, as his fellow performers beamed.

Although he was nominated but didn’t receive an Academy Award, Dustin Hoffman’s perfectly observed Michael/Dorothy continues to be iconic among those in which a cis-gender male passes himself off as a woman. In sheer acting terms, it far surpasses Fontana’s, which the show deprives of subtlety because of its emphasis on broad strokes closer to farce than relatively believable comedy. 
Fontana (Cinderella) brings his considerable singing and dancing skills to the role—which Hoffman could never emulate. He's loaded with stage appeal and hits all his marks with technical perfection. However, with diction more like a classical actor’s than an everyman’s, and a too-apparent desire to please, he somehow lacks the earthy charisma that might have made his performance as memorable as Hoffman’s. This, though, is more apparent when he’s playing Michael than when he’s dressed as Dorothy, as we can easily accept her as a construct, while Michael is more “real.”

Robert Horn’s script resembles that of the movie only in its very broadest outlines, such as the failure of the just-turned-40 Michael’s career being attributable to how hard he is to work with. And, of course, there's his decision to impersonate a woman, which means snaring a role his zany friend, Sandy (Sarah Stiles, Hand to God, terrific in the Terri Garr part), is also going for.
The story is updated to present-day New York, where Michael rooms with his grungy, playwright buddy, Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen, Cyrano de Bergerac), the Bill Murray role. Most of it is new, or just vaguely similar to the original.

One of the biggest changes is the role that makes Michael a star. In the movie it’s a TV soap opera called “Southwest General,” but in the show it’s a ridiculously farfetched Broadway musical conceived as a sequel to Romeo and Juliet and called Juliet’s Curse. (Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, anyone?) 
Cast as the nurse, he introduces ideas that make the show more about the nurse than Juliet. However, the complications of his budding romance with Julie (Lilli Cooper, SpongeBob Square Pants), the actress playing Juliet, make him confess his big lie during the opening night performance.

Cooper, by the way, is lovely and sings well but there’s nothing in her role to suggest why its movie avatar, Jessica Lange, won an Oscar (the film’s only one) for it. 
It’s hard, though, not to wonder why Dorothy gets away with her script- and production-altering shenanigans, while Michael was despised when he pulled similar stunts. And the movie’s handling of the confession works much better because it’s acceptable within the soap opera pretext, where such shocking revelations are de rigueur.

For whatever reason, the Broadway script completely skips the sequence of steps involved in Michael’s transition. We see the idea strike him and then—presto!—he appears all dolled up in a wig, dress, and heels. No idea is given of where he got these femme fixings or of what it took to suddenly become so believably female—including a falsetto voice—that everyone buys into him on sight. 
Those people include the egregiously self-loving, womanizing director, Ron Carlisle (Reg Rogers, resembling Robert Downey, Jr.’s, Tony Stark more than Dabney Coleman’s Ron). There’s also the show’s rich producer, Rita Marshall (the we-need-more-of-her Julie Halston, stealing her every scene), and the doofus, mispronouncing, buff, shirt-baring, reality-show-star-turned-talentless-Broadway lead, Max Van Horn (John Behlman, landing laugh after laugh). 
There’s nothing especially radical in Tootsie’s look, which has a David Rockwell set—within a false proscenium with a formal drop curtain—of mostly locale-defining units. These slide on and off before a skeletal outline of the Manhattan skyline, with the occasional use of an elevator trap or flying. 
William Ivey Long’s colorful, often glitzy costumes are mainly modern dress but also introduce strong infusions of Renaissance garb for Juliet’s Curse before it’s decided to switch the period to Fellini-style 50’s Rome. Dorothy even appears in a low-necked version of the red-sequined gown so familiar from the movie version’s ads. And Donald Holder’s vibrant lighting is every bit as bouncy as the costumes on which it shines. 
Horn’s book is filled with crowd-pleasing zingers, many of them right on target. There are a number of moments, perhaps too many, where the laughs depend on slow takes—a long, deadpan reaction to some outrageous bit, followed by an unexpected quip, an art at which Grotelueschen is a master. There’s even a bit where an agent's (Michael McGrath) office door gets a laugh when it does its own version of a double—or was that a triple—take? 
Much of the humor is inside theatre stuff that some may miss, and, even within the show’s satirical world, it’s surprising that Dorothy lands her part in a Broadway musical without any mention of her Equity membership. In fact, even the signed 8X10 headshot given to theatregoers as they exit, replete with her supposed resume on the back, lists no union membership, one of the first things that should be there. 
The very notion of a work in which a man takes a role from a woman for his own self-aggrandizement is notably fraught in this #MeToo moment. Tootsie therefore works overtime to ensure we know that it knows the political ramifications. Some may think the show wants it both ways: a man succeeds because he’s better at playing a woman than a woman, but women deserve all the respect we can give them. 
In one of the more serious moments, the newly woke Michael even gets to say how much wiser Dorothy was than he: “I always just grabbed what I wanted and assume I deserved it. But it was different for Dorothy. She’d voice her opinion, then be called ‘hysterical.’ She had to be assertive, but not bitchy, compassionate, but not ‘emotional,’ feminine, but never misleading, while somehow handling insecure jerks . . . and arrogant schmucks like me. . . .” 
Regardless, as per the cross-dressing formula, you get plenty of the expected gender confusion hilarity (shades of As You Like It, Charley’s Aunt, et al.), from Lilli’s lesbian-like falling for Dorothy, to Michael’s conflict about responding without blowing his cover, to Max’s passion for Dorothy inspiring him to have his torso tattooed with her face, and so on. 
David Yazbek’s (The Band’s Visit) mostly entertaining music ranges from unmemorable to stuff I’d like to hear again. I liked Julie’s R&B “Gone, Gone, Gone,” a cabaret number stuck in without any plot-advancing goal, and the haunting “Who Are You,” which I can still vaguely recall. Most of the songs are coupled with some truly clever lyrics, like those demonstrating Yazbek’s verbal dexterity at rapid-fire patter, one example being Sandy’s “What’s Gonna Happen,” sung as she nervously contemplates an audition. 
While director Scott Ellis (Kiss Me, Kate) keeps things spinning at a ripping pace, nothing of particular note memorializes his staging. Several solo songs, oddly, are directed so the performer, rather than being integrated into the situation, delivers them facing forward, almost as if having stepped out of the show.

Denis Jones’s (Holiday Inn) spoof-slanted choreography has lots of kick, and there’s an inventive moment in one number when the dancers’ Renaissance costumes are pulled off to reveal stylish La Dolce Vita ones. Despite its Bob Fosse references, though, Tootsie is no Cabaret, nor is it intended to be.
I hope this answers my theatre neighbors’ question as to whether I liked the show. Like a tootsie roll, it may be delicious but it also sometimes gets stuck in your teeth.

Marquis Theatre
1535 Broadway, NYC
Open run