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Theatre in Review: Tootsie (Marquis Theatre)

Julie Halston, James Moye, Santino Fontana, Lilli Cooper, John Behlmann. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Tootsie is the kind of Broadway musical that we should get once or twice each season and so often don't: a fast, funny entertainment that brazens out its very real weaknesses to deliver an unapologetic good time. Unlike so many musicals taken from popular film comedies, it has the good sense to stake out its own identity, delivering an up-to-the-minute show business farce loaded with zingers delivered by a light-fingered cast under the seemingly carefree direction of Scott Ellis. At a time when so many shows work overtime, clubbing audiences into submission rather than charming them, it feels like a breath of springtime.

Robert Horn's book borrows the central conceit of the 1982 film: Michael Dorsey, a struggling actor whose incessantly argumentative manner has made him virtually unemployable, decides, in a moment of mad inspiration, to audition for a show dressed as a woman. Not only does he land the job, Dorothy Michaels, his female alter ego, quickly becomes a beloved figure among her colleagues and a bright light in an otherwise dire production. Suddenly, fame beckons, but only as long as he can stay inside Dorothy's bright, color-coordinated outfits, an increasingly unpalatable proposition the more he falls in love with Julie, his winsome co-star.

Horn has cleverly reinvented the property, updating the action and doing away with the idea of making Dorothy into a soap opera star. Instead, she ends up in a truly terrible-sounding Broadway musical titled Juliet's Curse. (All you need to know is that it's an alternate version of Romeo and Juliet in which Juliet survives and Romeo has a dashing brother.) Cast as the Nurse, she inserts herself into the creative process, using diplomacy and an unexpected knack for feminine wiles to turn a flapping turkey into a potential hit, with herself as one of the romantic leads. This, I freely admit, is about as likely as a meteor striking the Marquis Theatre -- especially when she convinces the creative team to update the show from Renaissance Verona to Fellini's Rome -- and it is added to the already-glaring implausibilities that come with the film. For example, what does Actors Equity make of the heretofore unknown Dorothy Michaels? And what Social Security number does she use when hired for a Broadway production? It is a measure of the enjoyment provided by Tootsie that these complaints rarely, if ever, come to mind while the curtain is up.

This is so in large part, I think, because the production is written and staged with an easy-breezy manner that allows the audience to relax and have a good time. The cast, serene in its collective confidence that the next laugh is only seconds away, never goes over the top. The tone is set by Santino Fontana as Michael, who, in the guise of Dorothy, finds his fondest dream and greatest nightmare simultaneously coming true. The show amusingly establishes his pain-in-the-ass status, throwing him into an argument with a director of a musical about his motivation, a moot point since he is cast as "Guy Who Walks By." A montage sequence follows in which he talks his way out of one job after another. Once reinvented as Dorothy, he acquires a delightful set of Southern-belle mannerisms that stand him in good stead as he is thrown into some truly mortifying situations, often involving propositions from potential lovers of both sexes. (It's especially fun to see him manufacture episodes from Dorothy's past, all of them shamelessly lifted from the likes of Our Town and A Doll's House.) Constantly switching between Dorothy's flute-like soprano and Michael's naturally cutting tone, possessed of a gift for underplaying the wildest bit of business, and executing astonishingly fast costume changes, Fontana is the hardest-working man on Broadway; the trick is that he makes it look easy.

The star is in excellent company here, beginning with Lilli Cooper as Julie, his co-star on stage and his love interest off, a dedicated actress who has let romance pass her by. It's a good sign that the show is willing to pause long enough for a number like "There Was John," in which she half-ruefully, half-happily recalls the moment when she realized that the rewards of her career were more important than a spouse or family; it's the kind interlude that allows the show to breathe, making room for something real to seem to happen between Julie and Michael. Cooper also makes the most of "Gone, Gone, Gone," a sassy nightclub number that also reveals her confused state of mind about Dorothy, who she thinks is a lesbian chasing her. Sarah Stiles is a constant riot as Sandy, Michael's ultra-neurotic ex, "an open bar of emotions" who doesn't realize that she has lost the role of Juliet's Nurse to Michael. Andy Grotelueschen throws away lines expertly as Jeff, Michael's schlumpy roommate and the show's voice of reason, who faces the most outrageous situations with a faultless deadpan, followed by a low-balled laugh line. The scene in which Jeff and Michael scrub the apartment clean of any evidence of Dorothy before admitting the furious Sandy is as neat a bit of farce staging as you are likely to see these days. As he has shown with the recent revival of On the Twentieth Century and the current Kiss Me, Kate, Ellis is our go-to man for screwball comedy. (I'd love to see him tackle one of the classic Feydeau farces, like A Flea in Her Ear or A Little Hotel on the Side.)

Also, Michael McGrath makes the most of his two appearances as Michael's vengeful agent; John Behlmann, always ready to rip off his shirt to display his almost laughably chiseled physique, stops the show as the boneheaded reality TV star (Race to Bachelor Island) who decides Dorothy is the red-hot mama of his dreams; Reg Rogers slinks about sleazily and amusingly as Ron, the egotistical director with designs on Julie; and Julie Halston slays with each appearance as a hard-boiled producer. ("I've gotten Botox, so people tend to misunderstand what I'm saying.")

The increasingly convoluted action is paced by a bouncy David Yazbek score that keeps things cheerful, but which, admittedly, is likely to evaporate from your memory by the next morning. Especially in the numbers for Sandy, Yazbek has adopted the run-on, ranting style of which "Model Behavior," from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, is the template; a little bit of this goes a long way. (The admittedly very funny second-act opener, "Jeff Sums It Up," is strangely reminiscent of the similarly placed "Jeanette's Showbiz Number" in The Full Monty) Yazbek's lyrics are as comically on-target as ever, but don't expect anything as intoxicating as "Omar Sharif," from The Band's Visit; "Invisible," from Women on the Verge; or "You Walk with Me," from The Full Monty. In a way, this is a tribute to the songwriter's honesty -- Horn's book never makes room for such deeper expressions -- but it does leave one a tad hungry for more. Among the better numbers are "What's Gonna Happen?," Sandy's baleful account of her shrinking career; "Who Are You?," in which Julie and Michael/Dorothy privately take each other's measure; and "The Most Important Night of My Life," in which in the entire company, in the hands of choreographer Denis Jones, turns opening-night nerves into a parade of antic moves. (He also lands big laughs with Stan's idiosyncratic choreography for the musical-within-the-musical and with the number "Unstoppable," in which Michael, drunk with success, imagines Dorothy starring in everything from Evita to The Elephant Woman.

David Rockwell's set design, including a couple of a modest apartments, a downtown piano bar, and a rehearsal studio, are, almost necessarily, on the drab side, and I don't know what to think of his New York skyline, the bottom half of which is painted in soft autumnal colors and the top half of which consists of skeletal skyscraper outlines fitted out with color-changing LED tape. Then again, Donald Holder's lighting casts delicate splashes of color wherever needed and he paces the musical numbers with easy mastery. William Ivey Long's costumes include some sterling examples of the a-vista costume changes that are his specialty; he also has a fine time with the New Look dresses and tailored suits used in the Juliet musical. Brian Ronan's sound design is one of his best, allowing every word of the lyrics to be understood, and achieving a solid balance with Simon Hale's orchestrations.

Tootsie may not be a musical for the ages, and it is the rare show where the book stands out more than the score, but the laughs are so steady, the cast is so accomplished, and the overall atmosphere so helium-light that it would be awfully hard not to have a good time. It also has the nerve to end on a quiet note, a sort-of reconciliation between Michael and Julie that leaves open the question of what will happen next. Whatever your think of that, it's further proof that Tootsie knows what it is about. You have to admire that. -- David Barbour

(3 May 2019)

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