And while none of this makes Tootsie (music and lyrics by David Yazbek and a book by Robert Horn) an impossibly bad musical, it probably makes it a bit of a different one than most people expect to see. Because let’s be honest, audiences are predominantly coming to the show out of nostalgia for the Oscar-winning 1982 movie that put Dustin Hoffman in a red sequin dress as Dorothy Michaels and gave us all a shot of righteous but funny feminism.
But what happens when the Dorothy you come to see and rally behind is the least interesting thing on stage? And not because the musical doesn’t tell the same story, save some very smart changes and modern touches.
Talented but loudly opinionated actor Michael Dorsey still can’t hold a job, that is until he dresses as Dorothy and lands the role of a lifetime. Instead of the movie’s trashy soap opera gig, Dorothy tries out for and lands an atrocious musical that ponders what would happen if Juliette lived and hooked up with Romeo’s brother.
It’s a savvy alteration, allowing for more natural bursting into song and dance as the musical within a musical meta thing takes flight. Plus, it gives room for much roasting of the musical genre itself, including a terrifically funny dance rehearsal.
Smarter still is the consideration that this Tootsie is being consumed in a post #MeToo era with several nods given to the fight and plight of women.
Set in modern day, Michael’s decision to become Dorothy isn’t simply met with cries of “are you crazy?” Rather, he’s made aware that pretending to be a woman, to take away work from a woman, just when women are starting to get their due, is the lowest of the low.
Additionally, the man dressed as a woman plot point for yuks is played down. There's no wig or bra malfunction, no lengthy doing's one's face scene, no awkward handsy moment. Dress how you want, use the bathroom you choose and, live your life is the message given. Michael might not be a poster person for gender fluidity, but his ploy to get a gig isn't mined for cheap laughs either.
So, we get a marginally more woke Michael as Dorothy, but still, the character underwhelms. Part of the issue is Drew Becker’s performance but mostly it’s the role itself.
Becker does a fine job as the aggrieved and volatile Michael losing job after job. The frustration and anger are palpable in his kvetchy but determined number Whaddya Do. But throw a wig and dress on him and he loses all his fire. Even when delivering the famous anti misogynist “My name isn’t tootsie” retort, the juice just isn’t there.
Especially not in comparison to the supporting actors who not only have oodles more spark, they’ve been given all the best songs, lines, and comedic moments.
Top of the list is Payton Reilly as Sandy; Michael's insecure and angst-ridden closest female friend/ ex-girlfriend. If there’s a reason to put this musical on stage, it's to witness Payton's slaying of the show's funniest and most linguistically meaty number, What's Gonna Happen, where she forecasts bombing an audition.
It's a song that perfectly illustrates another of the show's upstages, namely the lyrics over music scenario. Sung at breakneck speed and likening auditioning to everything from colonoscopies to an audience with Judge Scalia, it's as deliciously wordy as the music is blandly forgettable.
Such is the case with almost all the show’s songs which have a general mid-level musical ba dum ba dum beat thrown in with some strings, leaving only the lyrics to remember.
Including the expletive-ridden, Jeff Sums it Up, sung by another of the show’s outstanding supporting actors, Michael’s skeptical roommate Jeff, played by Jared David Michael Grant. A song that has the lyrics, You fucked up, on repeat shouldn't work. But turns out it's remarkably refreshing to hear an I told you so song delivered that succinctly.
Mostly however it's Grant himself that makes that number work and this character pop. His sparkle-eyed sarcasm and terrific comedic timing steal every scene and leave us wishing that our actual lead had the same energy.
Rounding out the noteworthy supporting actors are Dorothy’s musical co-stars. There’s the one Michael falls for, Julie, played by Ashley Alexandra with a luxuriously mellow voice and that special brand of exuding natural warmth on stage. Then there’s Max, played by Lukas James Miller working the not-a-thought-in-my -head persona.
But even as superb as these supporting players are, they can't carry over the fun of the first act into the rest of the show. Certainly not with four of the 11 songs in Act 2 being reprises. And more importantly, not when Dorothy’s reveal as Michael is so dreadfully anticlimactic. The wig may come off, but the climax falls flat, leaving us to wonder what, if anything, the musical was building to.
Of course, Michael learns the lesson of being Dorothy and swears he's a better man for it. We like better men, so no complaints there. It's just a shame that in becoming a better man, we couldn't like Michael, Dorothy, and the musical a little more.
Tootsie continues through November 21 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. Masks covering the nose and mouth are required as is proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours or a negative antigen test taken six hours prior. For more information, call 800-982-2787 or visit TheHobbyCenter.org or BroadwayAtTheHobbyCenter.com. $35-$125.