The new Broadway adaptation of “Tootsie” is old-fashioned and proud of it — and it’s a surefire crowd-pleaser, in this musical spin on the 1982 film comedy with Santino Fontana in the Dustin Hoffman role.
Robert Horn (book) and Tony-winner David Yazbek (score) have a high old time poking fun at theatrical rituals — the mortifying auditions, the grueling rehearsals, the agonizing openings, the backstage heartbreak — in this affectionate sendup of a Broadway musical (replacing the movie’s soap opera setting) and its uniquely unlikely star. Director Scott Ellis leaves nothing and no one unscathed in staging this satire of a Broadway-bound musical called “Juliet’s Nurse.” From the gaudy Renaissance costumes (by William Ivey Long) to the over-the-top choreography (from Denis Jones), the creatives nail it.
The comic kicker is that we’re observing this theatrical folly from the perspective of the leading lady, Dorothy Michaels, who happens to be a man played by Broadway favorite Fontana (“Cinderella,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”). Out of drag, Dorothy is really Michael Dorsey (also played by the immensely appealing Fontana), a notoriously difficult actor who can’t get a job until he accesses his inner female and becomes irresistible to everyone.
This sweetly insane show opens with a modest opening number (“Opening Number”) about Michael’s many failed efforts to get cast in a show. That’s nothing new for this actor, except that it’s his 40th birthday and he feels Time’s winged chariot running over his toes. Just to rub it in, his best friend, Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen, rocking the physical comedy), reminds him of the ambitious To-Do List he swore to accomplish before he turned forty.
Michael isn’t the only would-be actor suffering from chronic unemployment and professional despair. In her heartfelt confessional number “What’s Gonna Happen,” his friend Sandy Lester (sassy Sarah Stiles) shares her own nightmares about blowing auditions. Even as the melody evaporates into space, the clever lyrics (“All I’ll see are judges / And they’ll all look like Scalia”) crack you up.
That’s the mixed blessing of Yazbek’s score: the lyrics are so smart, the music can’t always catch up with them. Even a time-honored sentiment like a declaration of love for Dorothy — “She’s so friggin’ sexy / And so friggin’ smart / She’s made me an actor / She’s built like a tractor” — turns musical tradition on its head.
Michael’s fortunes change after he gets the bright idea of dressing in drag and auditioning as “Dorothy Michaels.” Although Long’s ladylike dresses make Dorothy look like a linebacker, nobody seems to notice, and — Bingo! She gets cast as the lead in “Juliet’s Nurse.” (Well, boyish Dustin Hoffman didn’t exactly look like Miss America, either.)
Ecstatic with success, Dorothy bursts into “I Won’t Let You Down,” an anthem that builds and builds as Donald Holder’s lighting design gets hotter and hotter — so hilariously over-the-top hot, that David Rockwell’s scenery threatens to burst into flames. Fontana delivers the song with tongue-in-cheek respect for the sincerity of Dorothy’s feelings, but we who recognize the convention of big-belt anthems don’t quite know whether to laugh or cry or salute the satiric ingenuity of Andrea Grody’s vocal arrangements.
Lilli Cooper (“SpongeBob SquarePants”), a real talent, plays Julie Nichols, the lovely actress cast as Juliet. Instantly smitten, Michael can’t believe his luck. As a guy, he wouldn’t have a chance with her, but as Dorothy, they become best friends. Here, the book takes a major leap in having Michael’s consciousness raised, not only by loving Julie, but from his own eye-opening experiences as a woman. “I am Dorothy,” he realizes. “Dorothy is me. It’s coming out of me. I’m experiencing these things.”
The story holds no surprises for anyone who’s seen the movie, but Horn sprinkles the show’s book with clever one-liners. When Jeff meets Dorothy for the first time, he declares her “Faye Dunaway as a gym coach.” And when Michael, in costume as Dorothy, asks Jeff if he looks “heavy,” Jeff diplomatically replies: “You look difficult to abduct.”
Well-cast character actors demonstrate their bankable skills at character acting. John Behlmann earns every giggle as Max Van Horn, a handsome hunk without an acting bone in his manly body. Cast as Romeo’s brother (don’t ask) in the star-crossed stage musical, he never misses a chance to strip. “Taking the shirt off was my idea,” says Max, the winner of that popular TV show “Race to Bachelor Island.” “It’s what they’re coming for.”
Julie Halston, ever droll, makes a personal splash as Rita Marshall, the lead producer who has $12 million in “Juliet’s Nurse.” (“None of it mine,” she wants you to know.) Reg Rogers couldn’t be funnier as Ron Carlisle, the director of this turkey. His choreographic contribution to “Juliet’s Nurse” is sheer genius. “Accentuated movements, people! Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce. Five, six, seven, eight! Fosse Fosse! Fosse Fosse!“ (How did choreographer Jones get through this without busting a gut?)
Each of the songs in the stage musical can make you choke with laughter. The entire company joins Julie in singing Juliet’s show-stopping number: “I’m Alive,” with such deathless lyrics as: “Don’t hold your nose / I won’t decompose / I smell like a rose / I’m alive.” Kudos to the whole company for keeping a collective straight face.
Once he starts looking at the world through Dorothy’s eyes, Michael has a life-changing epiphany. “You know what?” he says to Jeff, “Women listen to each other.” With recognition comes understanding — and purpose. “I have something to say to other women like me who feel invisible,” says Michael, forgetting for the moment that he isn’t actually a woman. No matter. Any man who has walked in a woman’s girdle — shared her triumphs, felt her humiliations, borrowed her wigs — is an honorary member of the tribe.