The new Broadway musical Tootsie is a story of transformation in which an actor becomes a better man after passing himself off as a woman. Based on a beloved 1982 movie starring Dustin Hoffman, the show by David Yazbek and Robert Horn unleashes more zippy one-liners and corny double entendres than anyone could ever want. But the film’s sweeter charms and magic have gone missing in the metamorphosis from the screen to the stage of the Marquis Theatre.
Letdowns come quickly, beginning with an overture that leaves one’s ears searching for a hook. Yes, Yazbek’s score boasts punchy, lyrically nimble numbers, but when it comes to catchy melodies, not so much. Except for “Who Are You?,” a title that speaks for itself in a comedy about identity, songs spark superficial chuckles but nothing deeper. Considering what makes the film so special is that it tickles both the funny bone and the heart, that’s a big disappointment. Doubly so since Yazbek’s Tony-winning The Band’s Visit vibrated with wall-to-wall emotions.
In present-day New York City, rendered with silhouettes of angled skyscrapers, stage actor Michael Dorsey (Santino Fontana, appealing, head to toe) finds himself up to his matronly wig in fraud. Deemed impossible to work with, Michael masquerades as actress Dorothy Michaels, a bossy frump in monochromatic dresses and sensible pumps, to get a job. Dorothy wows a brassy producer (a hilarious Julie Halston), lands a job in a dopey musical riff on Shakespeare, and becomes a theater sensation.
But love complicates things. As Dorothy, Michael betrays his neurotic friend Sandy (Sarah Stiles, fevered, as required), falls for leading lady Julie (Lilli Cooper, lovely) and bewitches studly costar Max (John Behlmann, channeling Keanu Reeves). “She’s made me an actor, she’s built like a tractor, I like what she’s doing.” But eventually the ruse must end, and nobody likes that.
Horn’s script wisely preserves funny bits from the screenplay, including one about Michael spoiling his audition for the role of a tomato. Fresh laughs come when Michael and his playwright roommate Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen, an MVP scene-stealer) concoct Dorothy’s past by plundering plots of Our Town and A Doll’s House. Transposing Dorothy’s breakout role from a soap opera to Broadway musical is smart, but also problematic. Cheesy songs and dances choreographed by Denis Jones in the lame show-within-the-show contrast with the main story’s numbers. But the creative team, including director Scott Ellis, simply ignore the fact that the cost and consequences of Michael’s duplicity in a musical are exponentially greater than on a soap.
Equally nagging is the fact that references to selfies and women taking back their power make the action speak to today, but there’s no mention of gender fluidity, which Dorothy might easily inspire. A toxic director (Reg Rogers) repeatedly saying “There’s something about you” doesn’t cut it. When all is said and sung, Tootsie never quite delivers a compelling reason why the story needed to be a musical. And that’s a drag.