Theater Review: TOOTSIE (North American Tour)

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by Marc Wheeler on April 28, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional,Tours


Forty years ago, Dustin Hoffman lit up the silver screen as struggling actor Michael Dorsey in the gender-swapping, smash-hit comedy, Tootsie. Really, who can forget the VHS box art featuring Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey-turned “Dorothy Michaels” donning that iconic red sequin dress in front of an American flag? Obviously, a lot has changed in the past four decades of gender politics. Women have made leaps in social advancement, as has the transgender community. Now we’re arguing over more nebulous identities and self-declared pronouns. Given that, it seems an odd choice for Broadway to want to dress-up this decades-old tale that’s arguably “of its time” as a modern musical set — if you can believe it — in these same modern times.

Drew Becker as Michael Dorsey and Jared David Michael Grant as Jeff Slater

But, a hit film is a hit film, so Broadway’s gonna Broadway. Producers love nothing more than a recognizable property that will bring in the money. The problem is, how do you remake a story of a man disguising himself as a woman for personal gain — and succeeding! — without pissing off the woke Twitter mob? According to Robert Horn, the musical’s Tony-winning book-writer, the answer, apparently, is laughter … and lots of it. Now playing at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood (and later, Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts), the national tour of Tootsie is silly, lighthearted fare that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Even in our hyper-sensitive climate, Tootsie’s gonna Tootsie, though it tips its wig to the times. It’s a Gen Y tale (of an XY male turned “woman”) turned Gen Z musical. You likely won’t want to revisit the score, but you’ll probably laugh plenty – if you’re willing to suspend a whole lotta disbelief.

The cast of the National Tour of TOOTSIE

Temperamental actor Michael Dorsey (Drew Becker) has a reputation for being difficult to work with – but oh!, he decries, he simply cares about “the truth” in acting. At 40, he’s spiraling and desperate. Even his agent (Steve Brustien) knows he’s his own worst enemy. After discussing his life-long failures with his roommate Jeff (a hilarious Jared David Michael Grant), Michael learns about an audition for a new Broadway show, “Juliet’s Curse”, from his neurotic ex-girlfriend (a scene-stealing Payton Reilly). He concocts a mad scheme to reinvent himself as a woman to hopefully land a part in the show. Enter “Dorothy Michaels,” Michael’s female alter ego.

The cast of the National Tour of TOOTSIE

Suddenly, male grit becomes an asset. As Dorothy, our “oh-no-he-di’n’t” protagonist comes across as a strong feminist who stands up for herself and others, winning the heart of the producer — and a part in the show. Tootsie being a comedy, hijinks ensue as the worlds of Michael and “Dorothy” collide. The biggest of those being Michael falling for his co-star Julie (the gorgeously-piped Ashley Alexandra) who plays Juliet in this seemingly hair-brained Broadway sequel to Romeo and Juliet.

Payton Reilly as Sandy Lester

Tootsie’s score, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek, is pure, forgettable fluff. I couldn’t hum a single melody if I tried. Sure, the same was said about Sondheim’s less traditional pieces, but with Sondheim, there was a melodic richness to his work. Here, Yazbek sticks to the basics. Instead of bringing the art-form something new like he did with his glorious Middle Eastern score for The Band’s Visit, in Tootsie he offers a pleasantly passable “musical theater” sound. While the melodies don’t cry out to be heard again, they provide just enough of a smile to move the story along, even when sung at rapid-fire pace (“What’s Gonna Happen”). If anything, it’s Yazbek’s lyrics that steal the show, like when “Juliet’s Curse”’s dumb-witted, ab-chiseled actor Max Van Horn (a smitten, goofily charming Lukas James Miller as Romeo’s brother, Craig) sings about Dorothy: “she’s made me an actor/she’s built like a tractor.” Now, come on, that’s just … funny — and proof that Horn and Yazbek work well together in maintaining the show’s humor.

Lukas James Miller as Max Van Horn and Ashley Alexandra as Julie Nichols

Horn’s book, for the most part, sticks to Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart’s original story. What’s strange, however, is how he feels he must update it to justify the musical’s existence. We get to hear how Michael is insensitively “taking roles from” women — be they black or white, gay or straight, cisgender or transgender. Horn and tour director Dave Solomon (following the original Broadway director, Scott Ellis) make sure to check all the politically correct boxes, as if to say: we’re not the enemy, we promise! This also plays out in the tour’s unconventional casting. For instance, in the play-within-a-play both Romeo and Juliet are played by black actors; but Romeo’s brother, Craig, is played by a white actor; and Juliet (played by Julie, Michael’s co-star and love interest) is thick and curvaceous, defying traditional casting for the iconic role. Whether Solomon’s casting is “inclusive” or simply commenting on Broadway’s current casting trends is unclear. Perhaps it’s all a way to make this story as far-fetched as possible, so we don’t look under the hood.

The cast of the National Tour of TOOTSIE

This remake — if it’s even necessary — could easily have been kept in the 80s to save itself from having to justify, or apologize for, its “dude in a dress” trope. Just see it as a period piece and laugh at it. Setting it in modern times demands much more suspension of disbelief. You can already hear the angry Twitter posts: “Why are we telling the story of a straight! cis! white! male! taking roles from women and succeeding?!” Which is probably why the musical ends with a thud. Heaven forbid Michael be forgiven too soon after all the harm he caused. He must pay for his actions — and privilege — which is an awkward way to end an otherwise fun, silly romp. That said, as the Michael/Dorothy dual, Becker is a delight, with acting chops as strong as his vocals. That’s no easy feat, considering the tall order of singing in registers appropriate for each role.

The cast of the National Tour of TOOTSIE

Choreographer Denis Jones is to be applauded for his spot-on representation of Broadway choreography, especially when it’s taught to the cast of “Juliet’s Curse” with grandiose flair by the show’s director (a bombastic Adam Du Plessis). David Rockwell’s original Broadway scenic design — transformed for the tour by Christine Peters — highlights the neon lights of Broadway that beckon actors to its stages. William Ivey Long gets props for fitting Becker beautifully into the red sequin, full-length gown for which Dorothy (don’t call her “Tootsie”!) is best known.

Payton Reilly as Sandy Lester and Drew Becker as Michael Dorsey

Barreling like Mr. Magoo through a landmine of taboos, Tootsie — dare I say — manages to pull off this remake, if only through pure outlandishness. If audiences are laughing, they’re less likely to think about what the story’s possibly implying about the sexes. It also preempts critique by finger-wagging its protagonist — as if he, not the show’s creators, brought him back from the 80s. Such virtue-signaling is wedged-in like falsies in a D-cup (hey, it hasn’t snapped yet!) then we head right back to the show! In terms of sheer entertainment, Tootsie, based on something memorable, is fun yet forgettable. Welcome to the New Broadway.

Jared David Michael Grant as Jeff Slater,
Drew Becker as Michael Dorsey, and Payton Reilly as Sandy Lester

photos by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

national tour
at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre until May 15, 2022
for tickets, call 800-982-2787 or visit Hollywood Pantages Theatre

also plays Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, May 31 – June 12, 2022
for tickets, call 714-556-2787 or visit SCFTA

tour continues
for dates and cities, visit Tootsie

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