When Tootsie the movie was released in 1982, it gave audiences a lighthearted look at rampant sexism, mistaken gender identity, and sexual harassment through the lens of the TV industry, as the talented but demanding out-of-work actor Michael Dorsey auditions in the guise of a woman (Dorothy Michaels) to land a role in a daytime soap opera, but soon finds that his life – both personally and professionally – has turned into one. Now in its Broadway debut at the Marquis Theatre, Tootsie, a new musical comedy with book by Robert Horn and score by David Yazbek, presents an updated adaptation of the Oscar-nominated film for our current #MeToo times and the show’s new theatrical context. The present-day actor’s aspirations are now switched to a Broadway musical, and the issues of sexuality and gender, showing some evolution since the original, are still as challenging, but even more bitingly hysterical than they ever were, as Michael learns from walking in Dorothy’s shoes.
Director Scott Ellis keeps the story flowing, the pace moving, and the laughs coming in the central theme of navigating sexual politics and in the hilarious added parody of putting on a Broadway musical, both on stage and behind the scenes, in Horn’s endless barrage of one-liners, sexual innuendo and double entendre, self-referencing theatrical humor and insider gags. Yazbek’s music and lyrics (with music supervision by Andrea Grody and Dean Sharenow) not only contribute well to the overall comedic style and plot development (as does the vibrant and funny choreography by Denis Jones, with retro nods to old-time Broadway), but also provide just the right beat for the characters and their situations, setting the tone for the spoofed personalities, hilarious play-within-a-play rehearsals and staging, and the more serious underlying lessons of the need for gender equality, empathy, and honesty.
Santino Fontana is a sheer delight as the gender-bending actor, who, despite his difficult behavior and ill-conceived deception, still makes us root for a successful career and happy romantic ending for Michael, by sympathetically growing his character from a mansplaining know-it-all to an inspiring feminist Broadway sensation to a man who falls in love with a woman he comes to respect and to whom he will listen. He does it all with perfect comic timing, increasing sensitivity (though never losing the show’s zany sense of humor), and an extraordinary vocal range that defies gender, believably speaking and singing as both Michael and Dorothy (in a soft southern accent and flawless falsetto).
The terrific featured cast, too, embraces the madcap premise with spot-on characterizations and non-stop exuberance. Andy Grotelueschen and Sarah Stiles are standouts as Michael’s roommate Jeff and ex-girlfriend Sandy. He never hesitates to point out the mistakes his bestie makes in woke conversations (Do we really need a man to tell us how hard it is to be a woman, while taking a woman’s role away, at the lower salary that she would have been paid?) and in the showstopper “Jeff Sums It Up” (gleefully dancing around their apartment while reminding him, “you really fucked it up” – though likewise failing to accomplish his own goals as an aspiring writer). She is a bundle of neurotic energy and negativity in her increasingly frantic account of “What’s Gonna Happen” – another musical and comedic highlight of the show.
Also turning in priceless performances are Reg Rogers as the egomaniacal and ethically-challenged director Ron (his scene of helming the company in a dance number that references famed Broadway names is absolutely sidesplitting); Michael McGrath as Michael’s critical on-again/off-again agent Stan; Julie Halston as the moneyed producer who calls all the shots with Ron but happily gives in to Dorothy; and John Behlmann as the buff but not-too-bright bad actor Max (who recognizes that he’s only been cast in the show to rip off his shirt, repeatedly exposing his well-toned chest). And Lilli Cooper brings heart, strength, and a beautiful voice to Michael’s love interest Julie, who co-stars with Dorothy and loves her as a friend (or maybe more), before discovering the truth and who she really is.
The top-notch scenic design by David Rockwell and lighting by Donald Holder vibrantly support the narrative and setting with an electrifying Manhattan skyline and Broadway marquees that contrast with the tumbledown apartment shared by Michael and Jeff. Paul Huntley’s hair and wig design, make-up by Angelina Avallone, and costumes by William Ivey Long (including Dorothy’s familiar red sequined gown) define the kooky characters and the actor’s risible cross-gender transitions.
Having already received multiple awards nominations from the Drama Desk, Drama League, and Outer Critics Circle, there is no doubt that Tootsie will be a frontrunner in this season’s Tony Awards. This is must-see feel-good entertainment that deserves all of the accolades it garners.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 35 minutes, including an intermission.