Tootsie opens with a groan: A kitschy New York City set and far-too-happy, brightly dressed city dwellers singing about how everyone is so ambitious and everything’s so delicious in the big city. It actually seems ripped from the Skittles: The Musical Super Bowl stunt earlier this year. And that’s the point. The musical within the musical is a joke — and it really works, as many moments do throughout the production — but the cliché factor doesn’t exactly drop to zero once the twist is revealed and Michael Dorsey’s journey as Dorothy Michaels begins.
Based on the 1982 movie of the same name but set in the present day, Tootsie follows Michael (Santino Fontana), an out-of-work actor who takes himself, and his “craft,” so seriously he winds up fired from the few jobs he does earn. When his ex-girlfriend Sandy (Sarah Stiles) tells him about her plans to audition for the nurse in a Romeo and Juliet sequel musical, Michael impulsively decides to try out for the show as well — by donning drag and adopting that “Dorothy” persona. “There is so much wrong with this,” Michael’s roommate Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen) warns, but he doesn’t listen.
Dorothy becomes an instant star and helps to reshape the show with more feminist ideals as she befriends her costar, Julie (Lilli Cooper). As Dorothy grows closer with Julie and protects her from the show’s smarmy director Ron (Reg Rogers), Michael falls in love with her. Not surprisingly, when he reveals the truth to Julie, it does not go well… but hey, at least Dorothy managed to negotiate Julie getting paid the same as their male costar before everything went south.
Yep, this show, where the “hero” takes a job from a woman, also becomes a pay parity tale where the man saves the day and secures a fair contract for his female costar. And he still gets the girl — or at least gets her to give him a chance — in the end.
All that said, the show is damn funny. The book, by Robert Horn, is jammed with laugh-out-loud one-liners, and Scott Ellis’ direction allows those moments, and many others, to shine. The score, by Tony winner David Yazbek (The Band’s Visit), and choreography by Denis Jones are light and lively. And William Ivey Long’s costumes, including his recreation of Dustin Hoffman’s iconic red sequined dress from the movie, are gorgeous, clever, and fresh.
The performances, too, are worthy of raves. Fontana — who is already beloved for his turns on TV in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, stage in the 2013 revival of Rogers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, and for voicing Prince Hans in Frozen — is remarkable as Michael/Dorothy. His vocal gymnastics as he shifts from one persona to the next, showing off his jaw-dropping range, is otherworldly. He manages the quick-changes (with wigs, lipstick, the works) with aplomb and is able to roll with it and play for laughs when something, like an earring falling off in a key moment, goes amiss.
Stiles steals every scene she’s in: Her Sandy is hysterical in every sense of the word and absolutely lovable. She may reprise her unforgettable song, “What’s Gonna Happen,” where she speedily and pessimistically predicts her own disastrous future, twice, but you’ll still want more. Her scenes with Grotelueschen as the smart and sarcastic Jeff are filled with spark. Cooper, too, is delightful as Julie.
Tootsie has one other big thing going for it — nostalgia — and that’s sure to put more than a few butts in seats. The 1982 film is in the National Film Registry and received 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Hoffman, and a Best Supporting Actress win for Jessica Lange as Julie.
Ultimately, the show has the good-time vibe of a jukebox musical, trading long-loved hit tunes for clever zingers and humor. And it makes an honest effort to recognize and support the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, despite the plot’s inherent misalignment with them. In the middle of the first act, Michael, as Dorothy for the first time, sings “I Won’t Let You Down.” Unfortunately, Tootsie can’t confidently make that promise. B