Review: Hand “Tootsie” the Tony!

It won't let you down.

Did I really want to see another musical about a straight guy in drag? Not necessarily, but the 1982 movie Tootsie is a comedy classic and the Broadway retooling of it, directed by Scott Ellis, happens to be slickly entertaining and feel-good in a good way.

Santino Fontana (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella) is Michael Dorsey, a troublesome, self-defeating actor that no one wants to work with—sort of like the real-life Dustin Hoffman. Unlike in the movie, where Michael becomes a soap opera star as his alter ego, Dorothy, this show is set in the theater world, where Michael/Dorothy nabs the part he’s coached his lady friend Sandy for—the nurse in an absurd musical version of Romeo and Juliet called Juliet’s Curse.

We don’t see his transformation into this act of professional desperation. Suddenly, he’s basically Susan Boyle (with a back story cribbed from plays like Our Town and A Doll’s House) and finally making some career headway. And though the thrust of the show has Michael learning how hard it is to be a woman, it actually seems pretty easy for him since he promptly lands the role, convinces them to redo the whole show (which becomes Juliet’s Nurse), is on the verge of stardom, and also has both a hot guy and hot gal throwing themselves at him!

But aside from this central incongruity, I loved Tootsie, which is well-crafted and refrains from constant back-and-forth switcheroos that would have been tedious; once he’s Dorothy, Michael remains in drag for big stretches of the evening, though that (in addition to his budget) explains the limited number of dresses he wears, aside from his nurse’s costumes.

Some #MeToo-era ideas are understandably injected here, along with the theater milieu. Michael’s playwright roommate reminds him that he’s taking a job from a woman and also that, naturally, he’ll have to take a pay cut for the gig. Michael’s agent says he doesn’t care what pronoun or bathroom Michael uses, the only problem is he’s a fraud! And while a same-sex kiss grosses out his co-star, Julie, there’s a modern touch that mercifully follows. (“We’ll just start from the waist up” is a classic line.)

The sets and costumes are efficient, and the songs by David Yazbek are in a bouncier tone than his Tony-winning tone poem The Band’s Visit. “I Won’t Let You Down” is a potent ballad, which starts as a funny audition song for Juliet’s nurse and becomes a killer for Fontana (whose falsetto notes are as fabulous as his lower range). Yazbek could have come up with a stronger 11 o’clock number for Fontana than “Talk To Me Dorothy,” but Sandy’s recurring neurotic anthem “What’s Gonna Happen”—which has an angsty feel, like Laura Benanti’s “Model Behavior” in Yazbek’s Women on The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown—is utterly hilarious. Also amusingly, Zippel has several characters leading toward an obvious rhyme at times, then thwarting it with quirky uniqueness.

As Sandy, Sarah Stiles is impeccably funny and adorable, a real treat. In fact, all the supporting players are knockouts: A droll Andy Grotelueschen as Michael/Dorothy’s disbelieving roommate, Jeff; hang-mouthed, chest-tattooed John Behlmann as the dumb reality star who becomes obsessed with Dorothy and sings “She’s made me an actor/She’s built like a tractor”; funny Michael McGrath as the hard-boiled agent who stumbles upon his client’s secret; delectable Lilli Cooper as the object of Michael/Dorothy’s affections who feels confused and betrayed; peerless Julie Halston as a producer who wishes her husband could look down from heaven and see the good work she’s doing—but the bastard is still alive. And Reg Rogers takes a stereotype—the narcissistic auteur—and breathes life into it, while instructing an actress in rehearsal that he’s not touching her—“I’m moving you.”

But none of this would matter if there weren’t a Tootsie to drive it all home, and Fontana delivers a star performance, with comic chops, increasing pathos and heart, and tip-top singing. Hand him the Tony that Dorothy was supposed to get until she came clean!
Robert Horn’s book, based on the story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart and the movie, has the most laugh-out-loud moments in a show this year (though it strains credulity in the social network era and one bit seems distinctly borrowed from The Birdcage).

Is the result trenchant art? No. Is it British? Nah. Is it fun? Yes. And it serves musical theater satire à la The Prom and better high notes than Hadestown. It won’t let you down.

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.