theater review

Theater Review: Can Tootsie Work When It’s Not 1982?

Santino Fontana as Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels, in Tootsie. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Okay, here’s an idea. I’m calling for a moratorium on musicals made (mostly by men) out of big, splashy ’80s and ’90s movies (mostly by men) that try to step-ball-change along some fine line of simultaneously making a big, splashy appeal to nostalgia and ticking off contemporary political boxes. If we’ve got to keep upcycling retro film properties, may I suggest that some women-led creative teams try to musicalize, say, My Brilliant Career, Desperately Seeking Susan, The Craft, Thelma and Louise, or A League of Their Own (what happened on that one, Jason Robert Brown?)? Or, can we commission these kids? Give them a year or two of workshops and I feel like they’d give us Fury Road: The Musical.

But seriously. Almost exactly a year ago, we got Pretty Woman. Now we’ve got Tootsie. (What have we learned in between? Apparently that it’s even more exciting when the man is wearing the red sequined dress!) While Tootsie is a vast improvement on the same formula — David Yazbek’s razzmatazzy score and witty, pattery lyrics are its crowning delight, exuberant and actually memorable — it’s also two and a half hours of just failing to read the room. Under Scott Ellis’s big-lick-y direction, the show reads like an old-school Broadway extravaganza full of 2019 flag-waving. It’s got call-outs and teaching moments galore, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still the story of an egotistical dude who puts on a young Betty White wig and somehow becomes World’s Best Feminist. I’d say it’s dated — and for all its political polishing up, it is — but the issue really is that, for the precise reasons it feels stale, it’ll probably sell tickets anyway.

The show, of course, is about Michael Dorsey (Santino Fontana), a talented but insufferable New York actor who, thanks to his know-it-all intransigence (he’d call it his artistic integrity), can’t catch a break. Robert Horn’s wisecracking book sets Michael’s struggles in the now and substitutes the TV success eventually achieved by his film form — played by Dustin Hoffman, who gets his own credit for “Underlying Rights” in the show’s program — with a Broadway smash. The meta-er, the merrier. Of course, that smash belongs not to Michael Dorsey but to his alter ego Dorothy Michaels, a middle-aged champion of girl power summoned into being when Michael is so desperate for work that he dons a wig and heels and goes to an audition mentioned by his ex-girlfriend Sandy (Sarah Stiles) for the part of the Nurse in a cheesy Shakespeare-flavored musical called Juliet’s Curse. Despite the skepticism of the show’s chauvinist hack of a director (Reg Rogers), the assertive Ms. Michaels wins the role, thanks to a wealthy lady producer (Julie Halston) who waves her checkbook in Dorothy’s favor. Now all Michael’s got to do is maintain his act; avoid the constant eyebrow-raising by his best friend Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen); play down the fact that he’s falling for Julie, the actress playing Juliet (Lilli Cooper); and, oh yeah, save the show!

Fontana is pouring plenty of vigor and vocal vibrance into his role, but the truth is that Michael/Dorothy’s charm falls pretty flat pretty fast. I found myself thinking of Andy Karl’s similarly charismatic-and-self-absorbed performance as Phil Connors in Groundhog Day: Yes, the hero’s a jerk. Yes, we know he’s going to learn his lesson. But do we really want to dedicate our time to his lengthy, self-centered learning process — especially, in Tootsie, when the hero gets to spend so much of that process enjoying the spotlight? Despite its razzle-dazzle, Tootsie feels empty at the center. It’s all but impossible to sympathize with the lead, and it’s hard to be that interested in the woman he falls for. Cooper is doing her best with Julie, but the role essentially adheres to the 2019 version of the heroine formula: nice, smart, stands up for herself, gets some emotional solos, but doesn’t have that much actual juicy idiosyncratic character going on. It’s telling that Julie’s big number — a jazzy ode of sexual and emotional confusion called “Gone, Gone, Gone” — is framed as a standard that she performs for her Juliet’s Curse castmates in a piano bar. Yes, she’s responding to having been kissed by Michael-as-Dorothy, but the song is lyrically generalized: “I woke up this morning / Outta my brain / That old familiar feeling / Like I’m going insane …” It could be sung by anyone having a tough time.

Correction: By that point, thanks to Dorothy’s constant tweaking, the show-within-a-show is well on its way to being called Juliet’s Nurse, and Julie has happily ceded star status to her gutsy castmate. In the peppy “I Like What She’s Doing,” the meta-musical’s company responds excitedly to the sweeping adjustments Dorothy’s bringing to their production, which run the gamut from an aesthetic overhaul (“Forget the Renaissance. I’m thinking all new costumes — ’50’s! Fellini! Fabulous!”) to having the brawny, brainless male lead (John Behlmann) fall for the Nurse instead of for Juliet. (He ends up falling for Dorothy offstage too.) It’s all funny and fluffy enough, but underneath the comedy is an unacknowledged reality that’s downright dismal. The idea that mouthy, willful Michael would somehow be more listened to after putting on a dress feels demonstrably ludicrous. And when he finally gets around to his great awakening, the moment seems practiced and unearned. Dorothy, Michael tells Jeff, would “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.” Yes, those are real things women deal with, but we haven’t really watched Michael process them. His victories have been glamorous and his struggles mostly farcical (the only person to call him hysterical is the director, who’s played as a cartoon villain with no one on his side). Michael’s learning because that’s what the show says he has to do at the end, but we didn’t really come to Tootsie to see him learn. We came to see him wear a dress.

Character-wise, the most refreshing thing about Tootsie is its supporting players. Absolved of having to do much with Michael except point and laugh at him or let him have it, Jeff and Sandy are the play’s real gems, and both Grotelueschen and Stiles are turning in wry, wacky, seriously hilarious performances. Grotelueschen brings a perfect slacker’s deadpan to lines like “I believe the secret to achieving any goal is to do what you can, then tell people that was the goal,” and a wicked, infectious glee to “Jeff Sums It Up,” the show’s very funny second-act opener. Stiles, meanwhile, turns the catastrophically anxious, self-defeating Sandy into a damn good argument for a spinoff play (or, you know, just a totally different play) dedicated entirely to her fantastic voice and brilliantly awkward antics. She tips her hat to Teri Garr’s irresistible film performance while making the role undeniably her own. I genuinely missed her when she wasn’t onstage stealing the show with her repeatedly reprised theme song “What’s Gonna Happen” — an ever-quickening cascade of neurosis that surely helps establish Yazbek as the closest thing the modern musical theater has to Cole Porter. Just a little snarkier, and with more F-bombs. Would anyone else rhyme “It’s good to see ya!” with “Scalia” or “I’m trying to be more holy” with “I’m reading Eckhart Tolle”?

Sour center or not, Tootsie’s got bushels of exceptional talent toiling away on it, and these serious chops go a long way toward buoying up the show. I just can’t help wishing that we’d all start spending fewer resources on dragging the past, kick-lining and screaming, into the present. Though it’s got a rich, sharp score, some zingy quips, and some excellent performances, Tootsie as a piece of storytelling is inadvertently summed up by Michael’s agent, Stan (Michael McGrath), when he delivers this exhortation late in the play: “Michael, the world is changing and we have to change with it. Be a he, be a she, be a they, use whatever bathroom you want, and don’t let anybody tell you you can’t.” Stan’s an old white guy in a pin-striped suit, and though it sounds like he’s saying all the right words, there’s still something off in the tone. It’s a little flip, a little fast, a little, “Yeah yeah yeah, I get it already.” But he doesn’t, not really. And neither does Tootsie.

Tootsie is at the Marquis Theatre.

Theater Review: Can Tootsie Work When It’s Not 1982?