Regional Reviews: Chicago
Times change, though, and jokes that were acceptable 36 years ago are deemed offensive to many now. The Tootsie team of Yazbek, Horn, and director Scott Ellis have retooled the screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal (with uncredited contributions from Elaine May and Barry Levinson) and eliminated gags that today may seem homophobic or ageist. The older actor who takes a liking to Dorothy is now a young narcissist (played broadly by the buff John Behlmann) and Julie's dad, who proposes to Dorothy, is gone entirely. Horn's book, at least in its current form for the Chicago world premiere pre-Broadway tryout, provides some reasonable workarounds for those issue. but it also softens the theme of sexism that was the core of the film, and though this Tootsie is once again a clever and funny farce, it loses much of the bite and reason for being of the film.
In this new musical version, the actor Michael Dorsey (Santino Fontana) is a New York actor who works in musical theater as straight drama. He's fired from the ensemble of a Broadway musical for questioning song lyrics that are inconsistent with the backstory he's created for his nameless character in the chorus. Like the Michael Dorsey played by Dustin Hoffman in the film, this Michael soon learns no one in New York will hire him because of his reputation for being difficult. While running lines with his ex-girlfriend Sandy (Sarah Stiles), he decides to audition disguised as a woman for the role Sandy seeks. Here, that role is in a musical rather than a soap opera, the setting of the film. He again falls for co-star Julie (Lilli Cooper), who is dating the director Ron Carlisle (Reg Rogers).
In the film, Michael, now posing as Dorothy Michaels, fought against sexism on the set and made Dorothy's submissive TV character into a strong and independent woman. In place of that premise, this Dorothy changes the musical-within-a-musical's whole concept, winning the confidence of producer Rita Marshall (Julie Halston) and running roughshod over the writers and director Carlisle, who both roll over to the producer's wishes. Carlisle is shown here to be more of an egotist than a sexist, so the satiric target seems to be the pretensions of the theater business more than sexism. If the story's whole point is, as Michael tells Julie in the final scene, he was "a better man as a woman with her than he was as a man with other women," that message is not earned in this telling.
In place of a strong message about sexism, we have more of the self-aware parodies of musical theatre that have been so prevalent since The Producers (but not done as well as Mel Brooks did them). Tootsie opens with a generic opening number praising New York City. We're relieved when we learn this bland song is meant to be a throwaway, as part of the musical from which Ron will fire Michael. Fair enough, but we get two reprises of the number, accompanied by choreographer Denis Jones's spot-on impression of unimpressive choreography.
Even with much of the film's insight missing, the premise of mistaken gender identity has been a comedic winner for centuries, and Horn's adaptation works as stage farce. The dialogue and laugh lines are mostly new (a few of the iconic lines like, "Does Jeff know?" remain). And the new dialogue is mostly laugh out-loud funny, though a few groaners remain, and Horn completely rips off the Robin Williams choreographer routine from The Birdcage. Chief among Horn's accomplishments are expanding the Jeff Slater character (Bill Murray's uncredited role in the film) and giving him the best lines as Michael's best friend and worst critic. Andy Grotelueschen nails the slovenly playwright character and nearly steals the show from Fontana, who is an impressive singer who's a little unnuanced as Michael but a fine drag performer as Dorothy. Ellis and his cast ensure the jokes all land, and Yazbek's jazzy, brassy songs boast some funny lyrics to boot. They do slow down the farce, though. A lament song for Sandy, a comedy patter number in which the lyrics are frequently unintelligible, brings the action to a halt even before the reprise. None of the songs really move the action or develop the characters sufficiently to make the case that Tootsie needed to be a musical.
A musical it is, though, and it's a classy entertainment despite being a rather de-fanged adaptation of the screenplay. David Rockwell's sets paint a pastel-colored, line-drawing picture of New York with convincing set pieces of Michael and Jeff's cluttered walkup, rehearsal rooms and the theater stage. Rockwell's color palette only adds to the feeling that this Tootsie Roll is more just a confection and less substantive than the satiric romantic comedy with heart on which it is based.
Tootsie, through October 14, 2018, at the Cadillac Palace, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago IL. For further information or tickets, visit www.broadwayinchicago.com.