From Shakespeare to Mrs Doubtfire, when straight characters do drag it’s generally to get what they want. Bonus points if they land a sweetheart and learn something along the way. That age-old wig trick arrives at the Marquis Theatre tonight with the opening of Tootsie, Broadway’s latest and by no means least film-to-stage musical. A spit-take-funny script from Robert Horn and winning lead performance by Santino Fontana elevate a production scant on memorable tunes and less than convincing in its update to 2019.
Based on the 1982 film by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart, this Tootsie also stars a leading man (originally played by Dustin Hoffman) in search of a role. Instead of a soap opera gig, Fontana’s out-of-work actor nabs a plum part on Broadway once he decides, out of desperation, to audition disguised as a woman. As Michael, he has delusions of grandeur that make him difficult to work with. He’s much the same as Dorothy, only less arrogant and sweeter of voice. His artistic input leads the show’s producer (Julie Halston) to rename this musical version of Romeo and Juliet for his character, Juliet’s Nurse. Meanwhile he quickly falls for the woman playing his ward (Lilli Cooper).
A scene when Michael tells his roommate (Andy Grotelueschen) that he got the part is characteristic of Tootsie’s two-steps-forward, one-step-back attempts to wrest the story into the present. “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?” his friend asks. The next question is how Michael’s ex-girlfriend (a scene-stealing Sarah Stiles) will react since he beat her out for the role. “You think she’ll get emotional?” Michael asks. “Emotional? Sandy? The girl once choked on her food just so someone would hold her?” The dialogue goes from expressing lip-service sympathy for women to delivering a punch line based on stereotype within seconds. (No, there are none on the creative team.)
Fortunately Stiles turns those neuroses into art and delivers a knockout performance, including the only memorable number, one composer David Yazbek might well have pocketed from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. His score for Tootsie, while otherwise adept at carving out individual characters, lacks the innovation and range so exquisitely demonstrated in his Tony-winning work on The Band’s Visit.
Director Scott Ellis, whose boffo production of Kiss Me, Kate opened just last month, again demonstrates his expert hand at calibrating big-canvas musical comedy. Action moves swiftly between locales on designer David Rockwell’s elaborate and meticulously detailed set, and cheeky choreography from Denis Jones sends up Broadway conventions with a few nods to pop culture.
But it’s Fontana whose tireless performance galvanizes the production, in and out of that famous fiery wig (designed here by Paul Huntley). Fontana wears his charm like a vintage T-shirt, softening the grating faults of a character who might be hard to root for on the page. If all Michael gleans from cross-dressing is that he’s not the center of the universe and being a woman is tougher than he thought, there are worse lessons for a straight white guy.
Recent theatre features…
All the Questions I Had Watching Glenda Jackson in ‘King Lear’ on Broadway: REVIEW
‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ is the First Must-See Show of the Year: REVIEW
Temptations Musical ‘Ain’t Too Proud’ Makes a Play for Soul on Broadway: REVIEW
Kelli O’Hara Dazzles in ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ on Broadway: REVIEW
‘Be More Chill’ Is Like an Incel’s Answer to ‘Mean Girls’: REVIEW
The Most Interesting Part of Broadway’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Already Happened Off Stage: REVIEW
Broadway’s ‘The Cher Show’ Is a Feast for Fans and an Assertion of Legacy: REVIEW
Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar
photos by matthew murphy