Just when one’s ready to scream “Enough already!” when it comes to Broadway musicals recycled from Hollywood movies, along comes TOOTSIE based on the popular 1982 comedy starring Dustin Hoffman as the pain-in-the-ass, out-of-work actor who pretends to be a woman to land a job. Thirty-five years later, TOOTSIE gets hilariously re-invented - making it funnier than the original film - and smartly updated - having fun with our evolved notions of gender and sexuality. The result? A two and half hour laugh fest that not only gets the movie-into-musical genre right (finally) but also celebrates the best of old-fashioned, Broadway musical comedy tradition.
The talented but volatile actor Michael Dorsey is unemployable. (What director wants to be told by an actor how to direct?) Waiting tables and desperate for a theatre gig, he gets in drag, renames himself Dorothy Michaels, and auditions for the role of Juliet’s nurse in a Shakespeare knockoff musical called “Juliet’s Curse” which he learned about from his on-again-off-again actress girlfriend, Sandy, who also read for the role. Dorothy lands the part and quickly charms the producer and her fellow cast members (but not the director who is the same who fired Michael from his last job). With (Michael’s) innate talent and (Dorothy’s) pretend personality, Dorothy transforms the hackneyed, moribund production into a prospective hit, “Juliet’s Nurse”, with top billing for herself. Along the way, Michael (underneath Dorothy’s drag) falls in love with his (her) leading lady Julie. When Michael’s roommate, Jeff, learns of the masquerade, he becomes the loyal opposition to the charade as Michael is forced to unravel the complicated web of pretense he’s woven.
The major inspiration of book writer Robert Horn, previously credited with the musical "13", was to move TOOTSIE from the screenplay’s milieu of daytime television soap opera to New York theatre, thus making possible - and credible - all the song, wonderfully supplied by Tony-winning composer and lyricist David Yazbek, and dance. The book’s second biggest asset, finely tuned by Horn from years of producing and writing sitcoms like “Designing Women”, is an endless stream of one-liners, zingers that unfailingly zing. Even corny jokes land. What’s more, Horn’s characters are so skillfully drawn - and so fully realized by one of the most talented casts top to bottom on Broadway this season – that lines like “you can’t live a lie” and “being a woman is no job for a man” escape the banal.
Leading man - and lady - Santino Fontana (last on Broadway as the prince in “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella”) is as good at being Michael as he is as being Dorothy, displaying a comic range from impeccably-timed droll to athletic slapstick, and a vocal range that requires two registers, which he sometimes shifts between in mid-song. Fontana’s comic timing is contagious: none of the supporting cast miss a beat: Michaels girlfriend Sandy (played with neurotic perfection by Sarah Stiles), Michael’s good-neighbor-Sam roommate Jeff (played by Teddy-bear Andy Grotelueschen), the sweet but sultry Julie (charmingly played by Lilli Cooper of last year’s "SpongeBob"), and a dumber-than-dirt, leading man Romeo (played with an exaggerated mix of silly machismo and wanton libido by John Behlmann) who falls head-over-heels in love with Dorothy . Stage veterans Julie Halston as a done-it-all-seen-it-all producer, Reg Rogers as the egotistical director and Michael McGrath as Michael’s expletive-yelling, exasperated agent compose a trio of theatre types we’ve seen before but are as fresh as ever here.
Director Scott Ellis orchestrates the madcap at a pace that matches Horn’s laugh-a-minute script. The score of a dozen and half numbers by David Yazbek (last year’s Tony Award for “The Band’s Visit”) is a catchy brio of pop and show tune with four “hummable” tunes I picked up on immediately with no familiarity of the score. Like much of his work, Yazbek’s lyrics are unpredictably quirky. Yazbek has his own brand of vocabulary surprises and verbal somersaults, on best display in a Sandy’s manic rant “What’s Gonna Happen” that recalls Sondheim’s “Not Getting Married Today” from Company. The song is so good - and Sarah Stiles so good delivering it -she nearly steals the show; it’s reprised not once but twice. Andy Grotelueschen almost steals the show, too, with “Jeff Sums It Up” in duet with Michael, when it he hams it up in a soft-shoe, I-told-you-so ditty with his cross-dressing buddy.
Fontana leaves no doubt who’s the star of TOOTSIE in an early number “Whaddya Do” and ”Talk to Me Dorothy”, but really shines brightest in Dorothy’s solo “I Won’t Let You Down” . My favorite, though, was the duet between Michael and Julie , “Who Are You” with its wistful, almost elegiac, melody.
Scenic design by Davis Rockwell, who’s capable of eye-popping sets like “She Loves Me” a few seasons ago, if not novel, is fine. Denis Jones’ choreography is just fine, too, as are costumes by the prolific William Ivey Long. The highpoint of both Jones’ and Long’s efforts converge in one breathtaking moment where the ensemble changes full costume, in unison, on a mid-step turn in the middle of dance sequence. If the rest of the scenery, costume and dance isn’t spectacular, that’s OK. Story and characters make TOOTSIE a winner. Horn’s masterful, clever book is a welcomed and much needed example of how sometimes, just sometimes, a Hollywood movie can grow up to become a winning Broadway musical.
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