4 out of 5 stars
Let’s hear it for Tootsie, the laugh-out-loud funniest musical of the Broadway season. Yes, it’s another tune-filled spin on a hit movie — Pretty Woman, King Kong, the list goes on. But this one is actually good — hell, better than good, it’s musical-comedy heaven. Using the beloved 1982 movie with Dustin Hoffman as a launching pad, the singing-dancing Tootsie still features an unemployed asshole of an actor who has to dress up as a woman to land a part. But the film’s casual sexism (it celebrates a dude who finds himself) has been updated for the #MeToo era, going from retro to woke and slamming the door on patrimony with a mighty Times Up.
Leading a dynamite cast is Santino Fontana in a give-him-the-Tony-now tour de force as Michael Dorsey, an actor who thinks he’s smarter than anyone in room. Directors won’t work with him. His manager (a terrific Michael McGrath) dubs him unemployable. His playwright roommate (Andy Grotelueschen is a deadpan delight in the Bill Murray role) despairs of knocking sense into his head. It’s Michael’s actress ex-girlfriend Sandy (a sensational Sarah Stiles) who tells him about auditions for Juliet’s Curse, a musical sequel to Romeo & Juliet — Romeo’s dead but he has a hunky bother, Craig, played like a walking six-pack by the hilarious John Behlmann. That’s when Michael puts on a matronly dress — very Church Lady — calls himself Dorothy Michaels and tries out for the scene-stealing role of Juliet’s nurse. His (her) audition song, “I Won’t Let You Down,” is a rock-the-house power ballad that gets him the job. The show’s director (Reg Rogers, a spirited blend of mirth and malice) wants a hottie for the role, not dowdy Dorothy. But the female producer (Julie Halston, whose comic timing positively crackles) likes what Dorothy is doing — and a star is born.
Setting the play backstage at a Broadway musical — the movie cast Dorothy in a daytime soap — is a switcheroo that pays off in theatrical fireworks. Even in drag, Michael is besotted by his costar Julie (Lilli Cooper in the role that won Jessica Lange an Oscar, shockingly, the film’s only win). Lange’s Julie had a baby, a widowed father and lots of distractions. Cooper’s leading lady — she plays Juliet — matches Michael as a single-minded careerist. The virtues and faults they see in each other offer teachable lessons for both. And Julie’s gender-fluid attraction to Dorothy is something the movie never even considered.
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For Fontana, the dual role of Michael/Dorothy is a career-defining challenge, and he meets it every step of the way. Using a thrilling falsetto, Fontana proves he can sing as well as woman as he does a man. Hoffman never had to try that. Fontana does everything. Besides his gender-bending vocals, he can dance his crazy legs off for choreographer Denis Jones, nail the dexterous physical comedy the role demands as he quick changes in and out of William Ivey Long’s wickedly witty costumes, and break your heart when the time comes for Michael to face the harsh truth about himself, learn some humility and revel in the healing grace of female empowerment. It’s the role of a lifetime and Fontana delivers one of the best performances ever seen on a musical stage.
Of course, Fontana (who also strutted his stuff as Greg on the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) doesn’t do it alone. Director Scott Ellis (She Loves Me) stages this circus like a ringmaster supreme. The infectious score, music and lyrics, is by David Yazbek, who won the Tony last year for his groundbreaking The Band’s Visit. Yazbek imbues Tootsie with pop, jazz, blues, funk, patter, sophisticated rhythms and old-school Broadway brass. He’s a musical virtuoso. And the uproarious book by Robert Horn (13: The Musical) ups the fun quotient of the movie by creating an avalanche of one-liners that leave you laughing uncontrollably. In these turbulent times, with the world out of balance, we all need a place to let the good times roll. Tootsie is it.