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Entertainment & Arts

Review: ‘Tootsie’ gives Broadway its funniest musical since ‘Book of Mormon’

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Santino Fontana and company in “Tootsie” at the Marquis Theatre.
(Matthew Murphy)
Theater Critic

Let’s face it: There are more ways these days to get a musical version of “Tootsie” wrong than right.

The world has changed since Dustin Hoffman donned a red tousled wig, talked in a smoky Southern drawl and got in touch with his mature femininity in Sydney Pollack’s zingy 1982 film.

For one thing, #MeToo has ushered in a new era. One that might not seem to be all that receptive to a cinematic fable about an unemployed actor who disguises himself as a woman for a soap opera role, falls in love with his sexy costar, and teaches her to stand up for herself even as he’s forced to learn the value of fundamental honesty in his own relationships.

But “Tootsie,” the new Broadway musical by David Yazbek (music and lyrics) and Robert Horn (book) that opened Tuesday at the Marquis Theatre, is a marvel of movie-to-musical reinvention. As much an update as it is an adaptation, the show acknowledges that gender politics have undergone significant changes in the last four decades while embracing what makes this loony tale still so much fun today.

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But what really stands out is the wit. This “Tootsie” yields more laughs per minute than any musical since “The Book of Mormon.” Yazbek and Horn are like Woody Allen in the early days, only campier and completely besotted with Broadway.

I’m still shaking my head in disbelief. I’ll admit I went to the theater expecting the usual flashy commercialization of 1980s nostalgia. I worried the show might cheapen the memory of a favorite movie, but even more, I feared it would make the story seem irredeemably retrograde.

The film is many things — a rom-com with an outlandish hook, a gritty portrait of the New York actor’s life and a romp about gender roles that holds out a well-meaning (if problematic) message. But it would be hard to classify as feminist a movie that suggests it takes a man to show a woman how to be empowered even if the guy ultimately seems humanized by his own nutty experiment.

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Sarah Stiles and Andy Grotelueschen in a scene from "Tootsie."
(Matthew Murphy)

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The musical, set in present-day New York, doesn’t shy away from the political problems. When Michael Dorsey (humanly remade and superhumanly sung by Santino Fontana), the uncompromising actor no director in town wants to work with again, explains how he’s developed this female alter ego, Dorothy Michaels, to resurrect his career, Jeff, his roommate (a captivatingly schlubby Andy Grotelueschen), can hardly believe what he’s hearing.

“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?” Jeff damningly objects. Michael’s reply distills the insouciant self-aware humor of the show: “You’re not focusing on the positive here, Jeff. I got the part! I won!”

The production, directed by Scott Ellis with as much care for the verbal fizz as for the choreographic bounce, keeps the audience in a continual state of surprise. The opening number seemed to confirm my worst fears about the musical, but the show pulls a fast one on the audience while putting us through the paces of a journeyman actor careening from one casting call rejection to the next.

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The show, based on the story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart and the Columbia Pictures film, borrows what still works but goes back to the comic drawing board whenever necessary. One of the biggest changes turns “Tootsie” into a backstage musical by having Dorothy land a role in a teetering new Broadway show instead of a cheesy soap opera.

The reality star originally cast as the nurse in “Juliet’s Curse,” a musical sequel to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” that gives one of the lovers another shot at romantic bliss, needs to be replaced. Michael heard about the audition through Sandy, a neurotic ex-girlfriend with terminal self-esteem issues. (The character, unforgettably played by Teri Garr in the film, is ingeniously re-created by Sarah Stiles as a cross between Carol Kane and Natasha Lyonne.)

The casting session gets off to a rocky start. Ron Carlisle (a deliriously hammy Reg Rogers), the cocky-sleazy director-choreographer, doesn’t exactly respond to Dorothy’s look. But producer Rita Marshall (the irreplaceable Julie Halston) insists that he gives this dowdyish actress with the sketchy résumé a shot.

The audition song “I Won’t Let You Down” is a test both for Dorothy, who must convince Ron and Rita that she has the requisite chops, and for Fontana, who must persuade the audience that this drag performance is going to have enough reality for us to want to strap in for the whole ride. Both the character and the star pass with flying colors.

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The success of ‘Tootsie’ would be unthinkable without Santino Fontana’s Tony-worthy performance.

Fontana, who can do almost anything with his falsetto, makes it completely plausible in the realm of theatrical fiction that Dorothy would not only get the job but be able to turn “Juliet’s Curse” into the talk of Broadway. As the title suggests, the musical within the musical is a parody in the giddy Mel Brooks mode. (This crackpot show keeps costume designer William Ivey Long on his farcical toes.)

If “Tootsie” has one major shortcoming, it’s not the relentless silliness but the erratic music. Yazbek, who won the Tony Award last year for his score for “The Band’s Visit,” is operating more in the trial-and-error style of his earlier works, such as “The Full Monty” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” The big numbers derive most of their momentum from the inexhaustibly witty lyrics, Ellis’ buoyant staging and Denis Jones’ frolicsome choreography. “Unstoppable,” which brings down the curtain on the first act, wouldn’t have lived up to its title without these elements.

The novelty songs, quickened with quips, stop the show. “What’s Gonna Happen,” the number in which Sandy gives voice to the kneecapping power of negative thinking, finds unexpected rhymes (such as “holy” and “Eckhart Tolle”) while theatricalizing the psychology of a character whose unconscious mind keeps shouting, “She’s a fake, she’s a phony / She could never win a Tony.”

“Tootsie” finds renewal through its refreshing characterizations. John Behlmann gamely plays Max Van Horn, a knuckleheaded stud whose greatest talent is his washboard stomach, which is constantly being revealed (and never more hilariously so than when it’s used as the canvas for a tattoo that has to be seen to be believed).

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Grotelueschen isn’t anything like Bill Murray, who gave Jeff a slacker’s slow sanity in the movie. But it’s easy to imagine Murray approving of Grotelueschen’s original take on a writer who has been blocked so long he’s become almost inured to the impecunious horror of his life.

Michael McGrath turns the part of Stan Field, Michael’s fed-up agent, into a memorably gruff old school hustler. Halston has a way of making Rita’s lines seem at once effervescent and astringent. Rogers’ Ron is never funnier than when taking the company for “Juliet’s Curse” through its dance sequences (“bounce bounce bounce bounce, Fosse arm, Fosse arm, restless leg, yeah”).

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Jessica Lange won an Oscar for her performance as Julie, the soap opera star who can’t seem to say no to white wine or inappropriate men. Hoffman’s Dorothy fell in love with Julie as America fell in love with Lange. Lilli Cooper has her own irresistible radiance in the musical update of this character. Her Julie is modern in her views, so much so that when Fontana’s Dorothy finds himself helplessly wanting to kiss her, she entertains the possibility of a lesbian affair, further complicating Michael’s dilemma. Cooper’s performance grounds the zaniness with the human incentive romantic comedy depends on.

The success of “Tootsie” would be unthinkable without Fontana’s Tony-worthy performance. How effective is he at making Michael and Dorothy his own? So much so that it’s not even necessary to compare his performance to Hoffman’s. They exist in parallel realms as separate achievements — both actors marvelously serving the story, the artistic medium and the time period they uniquely occupy.

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