Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Thirty-seven years later, Tootsie the musical opened on Broadway, with songs by David Yazbek and a book by Robert Horn, who a Tony for his work. It starred Santino Fontana, who earned the Best Actor in a Musical Tony for his bravura performance (Fontana may be remembered by local theatregoers as Shakespeare's Hamlet in the final production at the old Guthrie on Vineland Place before it moved to its new home on the banks of the Mississippi). Overall, the show received a warm but hardly rapturous reception and lasted just nine months, closing in January 2020. Its well-known title ensured a national tour, which launched in 2021 and has been on the road since, making its final stop this week at the Orpheum Theatre.
There are two questions to ask about Tootsie as a 2019 (now 2023) musical. First, how do forty-year-old jokes and attitudes about a cross-dressing straight man hold up? Robert Horn's book addresses that in a number of ways. Michael's roommate Jeff directly confront Michael about the offensiveness of his ploy and the inequity of a man using deceit to take a role meant for a woman, while as "Dorothy," Michael speaks out in defense of under-valued female co-workers. And Horn recognizes changed attitudes toward gender fluidity. For example, in the movie, when Michael's agent first sees the actor dressed as a woman, he says: "Michael, I'm begging you to get therapy." That line was dropped–no one in the "Broadway community" would now suggest that a man dressing as a woman has a mental disorder. Later on, Julie's response when she perceives that "Dorothy" made a pass at her is altered in keeping with changing times. And while there are still jokes of the variant, whereby a man asks, "Does this dress make my hips look big," they are fewer in number than in the movie. Horn's book is very, very funny–I laughed often and hard–but more laughs are based on the eccentricities of supporting characters than on the sense that the cross-dressing premise at the core of the story is innately hilarious. So, the show does not seem wildly out of place in the 2020s.
The second question is whether or not Tootsie works as a musical. As stated above, the book is very funny. It is also very smart, but the score is just workmanlike. That is disappointing, as Yazbek has done some great past work, including The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Band's Visit, for which he won the 2018 Tony for Best Score. The arena in which Michael finally gets work (in the guise of Dorothy) has been changed from a television soap opera to a Broadway musical, which increases the opportunities for song and dance to erupt. However, by design, none of the songs intended for that faux show, a daft musicalized Romeo and Juliet called Juliet's Curse, are good. The idea is to have a show so bad that it is bound to be a bomb until saved by "Dorothy's" smart choices and charismatic presence. This means the addition of those numbers, while making the show more musical, does not make it better.
Songs winningly delivered as character bits, including "What's Gonna Happen", "Jeff Sums It Up," and "This Thing," prompt gales of audience laughter, owing to their witty and at times bawdy lyrics, and the comedic skills of the performers. Musically, though, there is not much there. As for production numbers, Denis Jones' energetic choreography and Scott Ellis' visually arresting direction, re-created for the tour by Dave Solomon, make "The Most Important Night" an affectionate ode to the backstage brew of hopes and nerves before opening night on Broadway. The tenderly moving "Who Are You?" sung by Michael and Julie, does make an impression as an endearing and heartfelt song.
In this non-Equity cast, the lead role, the marathon for which Fontana won his Tony Award, is played by Drew Becker, who took a great leap in landing the part, which is only his second professional acting job, the first being the ensemble of a cruise ship musical prior to COVID. He is a poised actor, handling shifts in temperament, along with vocal and rapid costume changes, to be convincing as both Michael and Dorothy. Becker has been with the tour since its beginning, some 500 performances, and is only the third person ever to take on the Michael/Dorothy combo, after Hoffman and Fontana. Perhaps that longevity accounts somewhat for his voice sounding a bit raspy–particularly when singing as Michael, which we would assume is his natural voice, not the affected higher pitch he uses as Dorothy. Still, he performs with flair and, as the part calls for, is a terrific straight man (no pun intended) for quirky supporting characters.
The actors inhabiting those supporting roles include Jared David Michael Grant as roommate Jeff, doing a great job maintaining an archly droll presence in the manner of Bill Murray (who played the part in the movie), until he stops the show, breaking out in wild abandon in "Jeff Sums It Up." As Michael's ex-girlfriend Sandy, Payton Reilly (also with the tour from day one) is hilarious in every scene, even offstage when we hear her screaming while running up the many flights of stairs to Michael and Jeff's humble walk-up apartment. Her delivery of "What's Gonna Happen" has to be seen to be believed. Matthew Rella is Max, the dumb but hunky leading man in Juliet's Curse with a penchant for taking off his shirt, who becomes captivated by middle aged, matronly Dorothy–not the most believable piece of a plot that stretches credulity from the very start. Still, Rella makes "This Thing" a deliriously wild number, vacillating between implying that the "thing" he sings about is his adoration of Dorothy or something more anatomical.
As Julie, Ashley Alexander is not quirky, but sincere and truly grateful to Dorothy for standing up for her as a "fellow female actor," and being someone with whom she can open up in a way she cannot with men. Adam Du Plessis is winningly obnoxious as the arrogant and lecherous director and choreographer of Juliet's Nurse, Kathy Halenda is a perfect match as the wealthy, gravel-voiced producer who supports Dorothy's feminist rhetoric as long as the show makes money, and Dianne Manaster is spot on as Michael's frustrated agent–a part played by a man in both the movie and the original Broadway cast, but here changed to a woman without having to alter a word. The ensemble ably delivers the choral, dance and bit parts asked of it.
The array of costumes by William Ivey Long to depict century Verona, post World Warr II Verona (Dorothy's idea), contemporary New York apparel, and an iconic sparkly red dress for Dorothy are all well-conceived. A shout-out also to Paul Huntley who created Dorothy Michaels' wig. Christine Peters designed the sets, based on David Rockwell's originals for Broadway, and they capably depict the many locales–restaurants, Michael and Jeff's apartment, Julie's apartment, Central Park, a rehearsal hall, backstage and the sets for the play-within-a-play. However, having ensemble members walk on stage at the end of a scene, joining in a song that is just winding up and moving scenic elements on or off stage, is a distracting device that underscores the pretense of the whole story as it plays out. Brian Ronan's sound and Donald Holder's lighting both contribute at the high level one would expect of these two veteran designers.
Is Tootsie a great musical? No. Did I have a good time at Tootsie? Yes, absolutely. I laughed–a lot–and enjoyed some terrific performances. And at the end, I was moved just enough to believe that Michael Dorsey had learned some things about being a better person because of the time he spent as "Dorothy," and that maybe–not definitely, but maybe–some of those changes would last. The thing that made him artificially strong–his masquerade as Dorothy–brings him down in the end. But in the very end, perhaps it helped him become actually, and not artificially, stronger. I guess if a show can make a person ponder the prospects of becoming better than they are, while leaving us laughing, it has accomplished something.
Tootsie runs through June 25, 2023, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $40 - $139. Educator and Student Rush tickets, if available for unsold seats, beginning two hours before performances, $30, cash only, limit of two tickets per ID (very limited, most likely single seats only). For tickets and information, please call 612-339-7007 or visit hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit tootsiemusical.com.
Book: Robert Horn, based on the story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart and the Columbia Pictures motion picture; Music and Lyrics David Yazbek; Director: Dave Solomon; Original Broadway Director: Scott Ellis; Choreographer: Denis Jones; Original Scenic Design for Broadway: David Rockwell; Tour Scenic Design: Christine Peters; ; Costume Design: William Ivey Long; Lighting Design: Don Holder; Sound Design: Brian Ronan: Wig and Hair Design: Paul Huntley; Make-Up Design: Angelina Avallone; Orchestrations: Simon Hale; Vocal and Incidental Arrangements: Andrea Grody; Dance Arrangements: David Chase; Music Supervisor: Dean Sharenow; Music Coordinator: Talitha Fehr; Supervising Music Director: Andrea Gordy; Music Directors: Andrew David Sotomayor, Josh Ceballos; Casting: Binder Casting, Chad Eric Murnane, CSA; Production Manager: Heather Chockley; Production Stage Manager: Molly Goodwin; Executive Producer: Kori Prior.
Cast: Parker Aimone(ensemble), Leyla Ali (ensemble), Ashley Alexander (Julie Nichols), Drew Becker (Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels), Kyra Christopher (ensemble), Mia Davidson (ensemble), Adam Du Plessis (Ron Carlisle), Nicole Fragala (Suzie/ensemble), Jared David Michael Grant (Jeff Slater), Laura Gurley (ensemble), Kathy Halenda (Rita Marshall), Austin Wong Harper (ensemble), Brian Cedric Jones (ensemble), Matt Kurzyniec (Carl/ensemble), Dianne Manaster (Fran Fields), Kaimana Neil (ensemble), Payton Reilly (Sandy Lester), Matthew Rella (Max Van Horn), Arianna Schrage (ensemble), Matt Woodie (Stuart/ensemble).