Watching the Broadway-bound musical “Tootsie,” you get the sense that the new musical by David Yazbek (music and lyrics) and Robert Horn (book) wants to be more than your typical rom-com. In both lyrics and dialogue, the musical (inspired by the 1982 Dustin Hoffman movie of the same name) bursts with passages that decry the gender wage gap, sexual harassment, and – crucially – the utter ubiquity of the male gaze and female objectification in show biz.
When: Through Oct. 14
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph
Run time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, including one intermission
At its heart however, “Tootsie” is a rom-com. And a dated rom-com at that. Despite the contemporary setting, “Tootsie” the musical is still the story of a guy who is a jerk at the outset and a bit less of a jerk in the final scene. He’s less of a jerk thanks in large part to the supporting women in his life, all of whom exist – at least within the world of the musical – to teach him to be a better man.
Directed by Scott Ellis, “Tootsie” shows Michael Dorsey (Santino Fontana, a genuine singing/dancing/acting “triple threat” whose talent penetrates “Tootsie’s” problems) without varnish. Michael is an entitled, arrogant, presumptuous, 40-year-old unemployed actor. He is unemployable because he knows better than every director in New York City, and is not afraid to let his self-proclaimed superiority shine.
Fired yet again, Michael puts on a girdle, padding and a dress and auditions for the Nurse in the new musical “Juliet’s Curse” as the very female Dorothy Michaels. Directed by oily, inept Ron Carlisle (Reg Rogers, emoting mustache-twirling villainy), “Juliet’s Curse” is a terrible show. Nevertheless, Michael-as-Dorothy gets the part, rallies the troops, inspires all and sundry to stand up for artistry. Dorothy’s audacity (and her wholesale rewrite of “Juliet’s Curse” into “Juliet’s Nurse”) would get her fired in half a hot second in the real world. Here, she leads the charge to box office victory and steals the heart of Juliet’s hunky co-star (John Behlmann, making the comic most of his eight-pack and gun show).
Dorothy’s co-star in “Juliet” is far less vocal. Julie (Lilli Cooper, making Julie easy to empathize despite her underwritten character) is an actress who loves what she does and knows how to manage the directors like Carlisle. She gets a lovely song about her love of the theater. Which in its final verses, becomes a song about the man who got away. There is a lyric about the loneliness of a half-empty closet.
Then there’s the Sandy subplot. Sandy (played adorably by Sarah Stiles as the love child of Bernadette Peters and Teri Garr) is an emotional wreck whose cripplingly low self-esteem manifests itself in a rapid-fire patter number with a syllable-per-second count that would give Stephen Sondheim pause. In her final scene, Sandy has changed: She is calm, radiant, in control. She’s just had great sex with a guy. Clearly, there was really only one thing Sandy needed to shed her weepy neurosis.
Which brings us to Michael’s roommate Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen), aka the moral center of “Tootsie.” Jeff calls Michael on his nonsense throughout, reaming him for taking a role that should have gone to an actual woman and pointing out in or out of a dress, Michael treats people like garbage. Grotelueschen is just what the role demands: low-key, deadpan and able to mine comic gold. He elevates a novelty number enumerating Michael’s shortcomings into a bona fide showstopper.
Along with Sandy and Julie, there is a third notable woman on stage, a white-haired powerhouse whose character – in a different world – would be the focal point here. Producer Rita Marshall (Julie Halston, graceful as a gazelle, ferocious as a lion) doesn’t just disarm men like Ron, she plays them for all they’re worth. Halston’s commanding but all-too-brief performance makes one thing quite clear: Rita’s story has better legs than Michael Dorsey’s and Dorothy Michael’s combined.
Yazbek’s score is fine. Given the program’s lack of a song list, it is also perhaps still in flux. For now, it includes a mix of aptly soaring I-Want anthems, goofy character songs and pleasingly energetic all-hands-on-deck production numbers. Horn’s dialogue has some genuine zingers. Choreographer Scott Ellis has laden the dances with insidery-theater type references which are hilarious, particularly within the show-within-the-show. His narration of steps is a high point in hilarity. Watch for the pop-up “Chorus Line” homage. It’s a few bars of heaven.
As with any new musical, there are likely millions being poured into “Tootsie,” committed to the journey of Michael Dorsey. You can see it in the large, top-tier ensemble and in set designer David Rockwell’s large, colorful renditions of skylines that nestle tiny, detailed apartments and airy 42nd Street rehearsal rooms.
But Michael’s is a small journey. At the end of that musical, he is still mostly the same guy he was at the start. May I gently suggest that there are other stories worthy of such mighty resources.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.