'Tootsie': Theater Review

Courtesy of Matthew Murphy
From left: Julie Halston, James Moye, Santino Fontana, Lilli Cooper and John Behlmann in 'Tootsie'
Go, Tootsie, go!

Santino Fontana steps into Dustin Hoffman's Spanx in this contemporary musical update of the classic screen comedy about a gifted but unemployable actor who goes incognito as a woman to land a role.

Alongside a sparkling script and a situation that was pure comedy gold, the key element that made Sydney Pollack's 1982 movie Tootsie such a warmly pleasurable farce was the fact that Dustin Hoffman's frustrated actor Michael Dorsey doesn't just slip on a dress, wig and heels and assume a female voice to pass himself off as actress Dorothy Michaels, he creates a three-dimensional character. She's the fanatical actor's greatest role. Sure, the insufferable perfectionist that blew a thousand auditions is still in there, but Dorothy also is a fully realized individual. She thinks and acts with her own instincts, experiencing the realities of working in a demoralizingly sexist industry in a way Michael never could.

That applies no less to Santino Fontana's extraordinary dual-role performance in this madly entertaining stage musical adaptation. His Dorothy fights for truth in her performance with the same refusal to compromise as Michael, yet she's smarter about getting what she wants, so smart that we even buy it when she becomes an unlikely feminist trailblazer. She exists as a credible, empowered creature in her own right, and by extension, so does this clever, crowd-pleasing show.

The ace creative team of writer Robert Horn, composer-lyricist David Yazbek and director Scott Ellis respect the footprint of the movie. But the explosions of laughter the musical elicits come chiefly from the ingenious ways in which the screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Murray Shisgal — plus the countless other hired hands that took a pass during the film's famously difficult conception — has been reimagined as a subversive comedy about gender roles specifically tailored for our times. And no, don't roll your eyes and wince about another gem from a less enlightened decade sacrificing its luster to anxious PC tampering. This is a savvy update that manages to combine awareness of the evolution in gender politics with insouciant wit, a playful spirit and an invigorating streak of good-natured vulgarity.

One of the most radical shifts of this reinvention is that instead of landing a role on a daytime hospital soap, as Dorothy does in the movie, here she gets herself cast in a Broadway musical — a risible Shakespeare sequel called Juliet's Curse. That allows for much affectionate mockery of showbiz lore, and while Broadway's love affair with self-satire has been going strong since The Producers, the jokes here are fresh and funny.

They start on the sly, with an opening number that skewers every generically celebratory "New York!" song that ever kicked off a show, performed against a glitzy Manhattan skyline set that's a giant, kitsch wink at the audience. Ditto Denis Jones' exuberantly cheesy choreography. The setup proves an inspired way to introduce Michael, who interrupts the rehearsal to question the authenticity of his character, "Guy Who Walks By." It also lays the groundwork for his conflict with egomaniacal hack director-choreographer Ron Carlisle (comedy genius Reg Rogers), a self-proclaimed visionary who promptly fires Michael.

The ensemble then switches to narrator mode as they tell Michael's story, accompanying him from one abortive audition to the next, while designer David Rockwell transforms the set into a more stylized New York backdrop. But Michael has zero self-awareness, so any hint of insecurity is quickly turned around against "those douchebags who won't hire me."

Reconceiving screen characters for a stage musical almost invariably entails dialing them up a few notches; that's notably true here for Sandy (Sarah Stiles), who has gone from being Michael's self-dramatizing actress friend in the wonderful Teri Garr incarnation to his co-dependent ex in this version. Michael's aspiring playwright roommate Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen) describes Sandy with characteristically droll understatement as "an open bar of emotions," and the hilarious Stiles gives her three principal settings — neurotic defeatism, manic angst and enraged hysteria. But the writers wisely refuse to box her into being a thankless victim, giving her an exultant snatch-back of her dignity in the second act.

Sandy's Act I song, "What's Gonna Happen," however, outlines the soul-crushing ordeal of every struggling actor. It's an accelerating progression of pessimism and one of the show's funniest numbers — a virtuoso moment for Stiles and a fine example of Yazbek's comedic skill as a lyricist. His score here doesn't match the intoxicating spell of his work on The Band's Visit, but every song displays solid musical-theater craftsmanship and is firmly grounded in character and story. And this is the rare modern musical that gives us a fabulously brassy old-fashioned overture and a jazzy entr'acte.

The role in Juliet's Curse that Sandy knows she will botch even before the audition is the title character's doting Nurse. When Michael comes in to read for the part in Dorothy drag, he looks at first like a linebacker dressed in the kind of smart, sensible frock you might find on an aunt of the bride at a conservative middle-class wedding. Or as Jeff less charitably puts it, "Faye Dunaway as a gym coach."

It was a shrewd stroke to make this Michael's second encounter with Ron, setting up a running gag in which the director-choreographer can't quite put his finger on why Dorothy seems so familiar. He tries to dismiss her, but Dorothy's impassioned protest about every actor deserving respect just for summoning the courage to step through an audition door wins her the admiration of producer Rita Marshall (the priceless Julie Halston), who reminds Ron that she writes the checks. Steamrolling over Ron's attempts to shut her down, Dorothy nails the Nurse's song to Juliet, "I Won't Let You Down," guiding the pianist through tempo and key changes and turning the number into a full-fledged anthem of sisterhood and solidarity.

Not only does this triumph secure the role for Dorothy, it sets the high bar that Fontana consistently maintains in a brilliant performance matching supple vocal command with minute attention to the subtlest mannerisms, often while navigating lightning-fast transitions between the character's male and female selves. Dorothy brings such authority to the rehearsal space that, much to Ron's dismay, she pretty soon has everyone in her corner, from stage crew through ensemble to co-star Julie Nichols (Lilli Cooper), who plays Juliet. With key support from Rita and Julie, Dorothy is instrumental in reshaping the surefire bomb of a show into a defiant testament to the charm and sexuality of a nonconventional female lead, moved from the Renaissance to the 1950s and retitled Juliet's Nurse.

One of the most uproarious developments is Dorothy's unwelcome love interest Max Van Horn (John Behlmann), a reality TV star (he won Race to Bachelor Island) cast as the dead Romeo's brother Craig. The character's name is a nod to George Gaynes' role in the movie as John Van Horn, the lecherous old ham on the hospital soap. Making him a dumb hunk struggling to understand his attraction to Dorothy was an inspired touch, with Behlmann dropping in a delicious hint of Keanu Reeves as he finds every possible excuse to remove his shirt. In "That Thing," he brings the same wooden earnestness as Max that Max brings to Craig in the show within the show, drawing maximum laughs from Yazbek's lyrics: "It's odd, you're so old, I'm so young / And my abs are like slabs of fine granite / My bod is like gold and I'm hung / And you're old, oh I said that, but dammit!”

The sublimely stupid Max is just one example of the many ways in which Robert Horn and Yazbek sidestep the frequent trap of excessive faithfulness in screen-to-stage adaptations. Every character has his or her own distinct twist here, making the musical a remake of a beloved movie but one that stands confidently on its own merits.

This is true especially of Julie, played with wisdom, independence and the most delicate soupçon of melancholy in a lovely performance by Cooper (Spring Awakening, SpongeBob SquarePants). Like her counterpart in the movie, played by Jessica Lange, she still gets hit on by sleazy Ron, but she brushes him off with a firm hand. And her backstory of romantic disappointment on the road to reaffirming her career choice, "There Was John," is one of Yazbek's prettiest songs.

As Julie grows closer in friendship to Dorothy, Michael falls deeper in love with her, squirming in discomfort at his unique predicament. But when he/she throws their relationship into confusion by locking Julie into a spontaneous kiss, the show again spins that development in a new direction, creating additional complications that trade gay panic for sexual fluidity. Not that it makes Michael's position any easier.

The other character significantly expanded is Jeff. Whereas Bill Murray's role in the movie was a deadpan sideline commentator, Grotelueschen's shlubby slacker becomes more integral to the storytelling. The post-intermission curtain reveals him seated alongside a miserable Michael on their ratty sofa, and Jeff says, "So, let's recap…" He launches into "Jeff Sums It Up," a wickedly sardonic takedown of Michael's heedless foolishness, punctuated by goofy dance breaks that express his mocking delight. The song's chorus, "You fucked it up / You really fucked it up," is an example of the creative team's refusal to sanitize the material into family-friendly toothlessness. Instead, they wholeheartedly embrace its irresistible elements of trash talk and raunch.

It also works having Jeff be the one who questions Michael's judgment from the start: "You can't be serious? At a time when women are literally clutching their power back from between the legs of men, you have the audacity to take a job away from one by perpetrating one?" Tackling that issue head-on gives the show the leeway it needs, and the message of becoming a better man by walking in a woman's shoes speaks to this particular moment in the cultural conversation without undue pandering.

The performances right down the line are terrific, including Michael McGrath in the role played by Pollack in the movie, of Michael's exasperated agent Stan Fields. Everyone gets their moment. Director Ellis' extensive experience in comedy is key in a show in which sharp timing and zippy pacing are essential.

This sassy riot is the kind of big, brash Broadway musical that gives audiences what they paid for. That applies even to the finale. While the movie's handling of Michael's unmasking was rushed and its after-effects tied up too briskly, the show ends on a minor-key note of poignant atonement and possible repair of the central relationship. But because the laws of musical theater require a splashy sendoff, we get one of Ron's gloriously tacky choreography routines (replete with a "Fosse! Fosse!" homage to Robin Williams in The Birdcage) as a prelude to Dorothy's resplendent emergence in costumer William Ivey Long's glamorous take on the iconic red sequined gown. By that point, Fontana has earned his ovation, and he's dressed for it.

Venue: Marquis Theatre, New York
Cast: Santino Fontana, Lilli Cooper, Sarah Stiles, Andy Grotelueschen, Michael McGrath, John Behlmann, Reg Rogers, Julie Halston, Paula Leggett Chase, Britney Coleman, Leslie Donna Flesner, John Arthur Greene, Drew King, Harris Milgrim, Shina Ann Morris, James Moye, Katerina Papacostas, Nick Spangler, Diana Vaden, Anthony Wayne

Music and lyrics: David Yazbek
Book: Robert Horn, based on the story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart and the Columbia Pictures film produced by Punch Productions
Director: Scott Ellis
Set designer: David Rockwell
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designers: Brian Ronan
Music director, vocal and incidental arrangements: Andrea Grody
Dance arrangements: David Chase
Orchestrations: Simon Hale
Choreographer: Denis Jones
Presented by Scott Sanders, Carol Fineman, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, Columbia Live Stage, Sally Horchow, James L. Nederlander, Benjamin Lowy, Cindy and Jay Gutterman/ Marlene and Gary Cohen, Judith Ann Abrams Productions, Robert Greenblatt, Stephanie P. McClelland, Candy Spelling, Jam Theatricals, Roy Furman, Michael Harrison/David Ian, Jamie DeRoy/Catherine Adler/Wendy Federman/Heni Koenigsberg, Jam Productions/Stella LaRue/Silva Theatrical Group, Toho Co., Jonathan Littman, Peter May, Janet and Marvin Rosen, Seriff Productions, Iris Smith, Bob Boyett, Thomas L. Miller, Larry J. Kroll/Douglas L. Meyer, Victoria Lang/Scott Mauro, Brunish/Caiola/Fuld Jr./Epic Theatricals, Ted Liebowitz/Lassen Blume Baldwin, The John Gore Organization, Ronald Frankel, Char-Park Productions, Chris and Ashlee Clarke, Fakston Productions, The Woodland Hills Broadway Group, 2JS and an A, Tom McGrath/42nd.Club, Drew Hodges and Peter Kukielski, Jim Fantaci, Friederike and Bill Hecht, Brad Lamm, Independent Presenters Network