Thursday, September 13, 2018

Theater Review: ‘Tootsie’ Pre-Broadway Preview

Location: Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago, IL

Website: Official Tootsie musical site

Starring: Santino Fontana, Lili Cooper, Sarah Stiles, Andy Grotelueschen, John Behlmann, Reg Rogers, Michael McGrath, Julie Halston

My Review: Since leaving NYC many years ago, I don’t often get an early look at new theater productions. But the new Tootsie musical is currently doing its preview run in Chicago before opening on Broadway in March 2019 and I got to see its second preview performance, so I decided to temporarily resurrect this blog to share my thoughts.

Based on the same-named 1982 Dustin Hoffman movie, Tootsie tells the story of Michael Dorsey (Fontana), an NYC actor who’s struggling to find roles primarily because he’s such a perfectionist pain in the ass that no one wants to work with him. In an act of desperation, he disguises himself as a woman to audition for a part, which he lands, and rebrands himself as Dorothy Michaels, a middle-aged Southern woman who is just as stubborn and outspoken as Michael, but in female form is seen as being a powerful feminist, thus earning her the respect and adoration of her fellow castmates and creating a level of fame that Michael had only dreamed about. Though things get complicated when he falls for his co-star, Julie (Cooper), who only knows him as Dorothy, her new best friend.

While the premise of the new stage musical (music and lyrics by David Yazbek) is similar to the movie it’s based on, a lot has been changed, so anyone looking for a completely faithful recreation may be disappointed. Most of the changes work for the better: the setting is updated to today (no 1980s shoulder pads, sorry), instead of a soap opera like in the movie Michael/Dorothy auditions to be in a new stage musical, and gone is the subplot of Julie’s father falling in love with Dorothy (the clunkiest part in an otherwise great movie, in my opinion, so it was not missed).

Generally, I haven’t been thrilled by the current trend of adapting popular movies into stage productions, and have avoided spending my money on them (no, I did not see the Pretty Woman musical when it did its pre-Broadway run here in Chicago, and judging by the NYC critics’ reviews, I didn’t miss much). But I was cautiously optimistic when I heard Tootsie was getting the musical treatment as I thought it was one of those rare movies that could translate well for the stage. Michael is a stage actor, so there’s already a theatrical vein to his story, and all of the other characters are involved in show business in some way, so the enlarged performances that are necessary for being on stage could work. Tootsie is also, at its core, a relatively simple story to tell, with no special effects or pyrotechnics needed, so the potential for any Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark-level disasters was minimal.

And for the most part, Tootsie does work well on the stage and I found the musical to be highly entertaining, albeit imperfect. The overall story fits in perfectly with today’s climate as Michael’s feminist awakening is reminiscent of men who have vocally supported the #MeToo movement, and there are topical references made to sexual harassment in the workplace and the wage gap. But rather than feeling preachy or trying too hard to be relevant, the show is quite funny (book by Robert Horn). The new musical Dorothy is cast in is a reimaging of Romeo and Juliet where Juliet doesn’t die and finds a happy ending with Romeo’s brother, Craig; a premise that is just as laughably ridiculous as it sounds and is treated as so within the production. Michael’s neurotic actor friend, Sandy (Stiles), is a recurring scene stealer with her manic patter singing about all the things that could (and do) go wrong at her various auditions, and his roommate, Jeff (Grotelueschen), is a consistent source of sarcastic support with questionable effectiveness, the kind of friend that anyone who’s ever lived in NYC and/or worked in entertainment knows all too well.

The cast as a whole is enjoyable and work well together, even managing to play off each other during some ad-libbed moments that were a result of an audio equipment malfunction the night I attended. Fontana—probably best known now for his role of Greg on the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—ably leads the whole troupe as Michael/Dorothy, paying just enough homage to Hoffman’s performance to please fans of the original movie while still making the part his own: for example, his Michael comes across as more of a petulant dick at times than an actor willing to die for his craft, but it works.

Where Tootsie falls short the most is in its songs, which, as a musical, is a bit problematic. The show is still in previews and the Playbill I received didn’t even offer a list of the musical numbers, which leads me to believe that the libretto is still a work in progress and I wouldn’t be surprised if more tweaking is done before the big Broadway premiere. As it is right now, there are no memorable tunes, with the possible exception of Sandy’s aforementioned patter singing, but that really isn’t the type of song that makes a musical unforgettable. There’s also a very clunky and overly-long song where Julie laments the difficulties of having a healthy relationship when you’re a working actor that is one of the more tedious things I’ve experienced in recent memory. I left the theater feeling amused and entertained, but with no desire to listen to the cast album, which is highly unusual for me. (Seriously, you should see my iPod. And yes, I still use my iPod.)

I also wish the show had leaned a bit more into the feminist slant of the story. The fact that so many of the issues that were addressed in the 1982 movie are still relevant today just proves how important they are and how unlikely they are to prematurely date this production. The commentary and character revelations that are made are welcome, but everything gets wrapped up a bit too quickly with no further insight. The role that Dorothy gets was one that Sandy wanted and she’s the reason Michael ever even knew about it, which is acknowledged, but Michael is never really held accountable for taking the part from Sandy (and all the other women who auditioned), and the repercussions of Julie—whose fondness of Dorothy has her examining her sexuality—discovering that Dorothy is really Michael is practically nonexistent. There was also little done to show Michael’s physical transformation into Dorothy: he just shows up to the audition in a dress and wig, and that’s Dorothy’s look for the rest of the performance. The fact that Dorothy is not a conventionally pretty woman is referenced multiple times, and I would have liked to have seen Michael struggle with that perception while offering some sort of insight on the unfair expectation that a woman has to be attractive to be worthy. Seems like a missed opportunity for a big musical number, honestly.

And no matter how they decided to stage the reveal that Dorothy is Michael, they were never going to top this:

Bottom Line: While it’s unlikely to become a modern musical masterpiece (it’s not Hamilton or Fun Home), Tootsie is a highly enjoyable show and one of the few movie adaptations that I think actually works on the stage. With a little more work on the song list and a more filled out resolution, it will surely enjoy a successful Broadway run and hopefully add to the discussion about what exactly it means to be a feminist.