Terrific 'Tootsie' triumphs as updated musical comedy for #MeToo era

  • Santino Fontana, center, stars as unemployed actor Michael Dorsey in the Broadway-bound "Tootsie."

    Santino Fontana, center, stars as unemployed actor Michael Dorsey in the Broadway-bound "Tootsie." Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes

 
 
Updated 10/3/2018 11:26 AM

"Tootsie" -- ★ ★ ★

The creative talents behind "Tootsie," the Broadway-bound musical that opened Sunday at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre, were as good as their word.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

During a press meet-and-greet last month, composer/lyricist David Yazbek and writer Robert Horn said they would honor the hit 1982 comedy and remain faithful to its themes. But they intended to tell their story -- about the challenges actors face and the choices they make to pursue their passion -- their way.

They delivered. Not only is the shrewd, self-aware "Tootsie" laugh-out-loud funny, but Yazbek and Horn together with director Scott Ellis have excised some of the film's more troubling elements relating to gender, power, sexual harassment and predation, and embraced the current zeitgeist, including the #MeToo movement.

The titular Tootsie remains, character flaws intact, comeuppance and raised consciousness assured.

The plot -- which substitutes present-day Broadway for a 1980s daytime soap opera -- revolves around unemployed actor Michael Dorsey (Santino Fontana, impressive in a starmaking turn), who dresses as a woman to audition for a role in a musical sequel to "Romeo & Juliet." Winning the part forces Michael, going by the name Dorothy Michaels, to maintain the charade on stage and off. That means deceiving castmates including the comely Julie (Lilli Cooper), to whom Michael is increasingly attracted; dimwitted reality TV star Max (John Behlmann); bumptious director Ron (a very funny Reg Rogers) and bottom-line producer Rita (Julie Halston).

It also means lying to his profoundly insecure former girlfriend Sandy (Sarah Stiles, whose vocal timbre and quirky vulnerability recall Bernadette Peters) and agent Stan (Michael McGrath). Offering reluctant support is best pal and aspiring playwright Jeff (a droll Andy Grotelueschen), who points out that "at a time when women are clutching power back from between the legs of men" Michael is depriving a woman of a job. Not exactly behavior you'd expect from an ally. Dorothy exerts influence, but Michael is ultimately in charge.

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Still, the show features empowered women. Julie, for example, is a savvy theater veteran who knows how to handle a pushy, powerful man with a fragile ego. She stands in stark contrast to the film's deferential actress involved with a chauvinistic and overbearing director. In addition, a female producer makes clear early on who writes the checks and whose word is final.

Horn (TV's "Designing Women" and "Living Single") has written some terrific zingers for the tuner, which recalls the film's comic sensibility. That humor extends to Denis Jones' choreography, which embraces Broadway traditions as much as it spoofs them. The broad, jazzy score by Yazbek ("The Band's Visit," "The Fully Monty") incorporates several winning patter tunes, a bona fide show stopper in the anthemic "I Won't Let You Down" and "There Was John" (sung with heartfelt simplicity by the winsome Cooper), a meditation on the choices actors sometimes make between what they love and whom they love.

From William Ivey Long's glittering, glamorous costumes to David Rockwell's gleaming, neon-accented Manhattan skyline that looms over Michael's cluttered flat, the production values are first-rate. And Ellis earns kudos not only for perfectly timed (and flawlessly executed) comic bits, but for the unassuming authenticity that defines the quieter moments, including the credibly ambivalent final scene which I found to be spot-on.

That said, some characters need fleshing out. The climax is pretty anticlimactic and the show runs out of steam near the end. But those are minor points. "Tootsie" is a major achievement. Much of the credit belongs to past (and likely future) Tony Award nominee Fontana, whose lack of pretense makes credible Michael's confession that he was a better man with Julie as a woman, than he was with any woman as a man.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Fontana possesses charisma, timing and a crystalline upper register. Man or woman, he's an unstoppable force.

• • •

Location: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago. (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through Oct. 14. No 7:30 p.m. performances Oct. 7 or 14

Running time: About two hours, 40 minutes including intermission

Tickets: $35-$105

Parking: Paid lots nearby

Rating: For adults; includes strong language and mature subject matter

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