First things first: A musical? About Tootsie? It has no business working as well as it does.
I mean, really. Who could have predicted this? A show-to-stage extravaganza, based on the beloved, Oscar-nominated 1982 comedy about a desperate, out-of-work actor who disguises himself as a woman because he thinks it’ll be easier to get parts that way (HA), and winds up falling in love with a co-star and learning a few things along the way is one of those tales you’d be forgiven for thinking is best left in the past.
Happily, this thoroughly modern update is a genuine thrill, mostly thanks to Robert Horn’s smart book, which excises a lot of the more cringe-y aspects on the original comedy, and instead invites audiences to laugh at Michael Dorsey. The show begins with Michael interrupting the opening number to complain about his character’s motivation, for goodness sake! Packed with jokes, the show is completely ridiculous, but it totally works.
This is a musical that isn’t afraid to basically say “Get a load of this dumbass!” And you LIKE him. It is shocking. At intermission, I remarked to a friend I couldn’t believe how deftly the whole team, led by director Scott Ellis, were handling all the potential problematic pratfalls.
Central to all of this, of course, is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Frozen alum Santino Fontana as Michael, who is absolutely crushing this juicy part and may just walk away with a Tony. He perfectly nails both the Dumb Male Ego aspect of the character that would allow someone to contemplate such a silly plan as well, as the vulnerability and growth that make you root for him. When he first appears as alter ego Dorothy and lets loose with his audition ballad “I Won’t Let You Down,” it’s a stunning transformation.
Packed with jokes, the show’s ridiculous, but totally works
This time around, Michael-as-Dorothy gets cast in stage musical Juliet’s Curse, a goofy continuation of Romeo and Juliet instead of the soap opera from the film. The theater send-ups come fast and furious (a bit about Broadway dance moves had me near tears), and the purposefully stupid show-within-a-show provides a great avenue for many gags, as well as an amusing subplot that finds a dumbo reality show star (an excellent John Behlmann) with a penchant for baring his abs nursing a crush on Dorothy.
Helping things along immensely is a pretty perfect Sarah Stiles as Michael’s sweetly neurotic ex-girlfriend Sandy. Her big number — a rapid-fire rundown of everything she’s currently anxious about — is a standout that got cheers every time it was reprised. But it’s not just Stiles: The whole cast gets their moment to shine, from Lilli Cooper’s co-star-turned-love-interest Julie Nichols and her understated remarks about Being A Woman Today to Dorothy’s bemused, seen-it-all slacker roommate, Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen), who has always got the perfect quip at the ready.
If there are weak spots, I would say that while the songs, by Tony winner David Yazbek (The Band’s Visit), are fine, none, save for the aforementioned Stiles number, are memorable. The music is serviceable and the lyrics quippy, but you won’t be humming tunes on your way out of the theater.
And while the show does a good job not letting Michael and his hurtful scheme off the hook, the final 10 minutes don’t land quite as well as what came before it. It’s a difficult needle to thread when someone behaves horribly but audiences still want a happily ever after (see: Dear Evan Hansen) and the show would have benefited from digging a little deeper in the closing moments.
But that’s a relatively minor quibble for a show that kept me laughing for two hours straight. It’s an absurd, goofy takedown of Dumb Men. Real life has more than enough of them, but I found this one I didn’t mind having around.